Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Tracey Fern Sails for Adventure With 'Dare the Wind'

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 Cloud
by 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!

Q: Both Ellen Prentiss and Barnum Brown of 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.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

WWII Nurses' History in Mary Cronk Farrell's 'Pure Grit'

March is not only Women's History Month, it's also National Reading Month. So what better way to celebrate the two than with a gripping read about some remarkable women at a crucial time in America's history. Mary Cronk Farrell's Pure Grit: How American World War II Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific (Abrams, February 2014) is designated for a third- to seventh-grade audience, but its appeal is much broader. I've talked about this title with parents and grownup friends as well as my own kids, and I simply cannot recommend this book enough. Not only does it detail the harrowing accounts of what these brave women went through, but it also looks at the frustrating treatment they endured upon return to the United States.

Pure Grit tells the story of U.S. Army nurses who enlisted for peacetime duty during the early 1940s. When the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War II, their lives were turned upside down. One hundred and one American Army and Navy nurses serving in the Philippines suddenly found themselves treating wounded and dying soldiers in makeshift jungle hospitals. Told with page-turning urgency and illustrated with archival photographs, Pure Grit conveys the plight of these nurses struggling to help the wounded while bombs were exploding all around them.

Captured by the Japanese as prisoners of war, the nurses went on to endure three years of disease and near-starvation. This is a part of American history I knew nothing about, and I am so grateful Mary Cronk Farrell devoted the time necessary to write Pure Grit. It truly is a story of sisterhood.

Question: Pure Grit is incredibly well-researched. How long did this project take you from "ah-ha" moment to written manuscript. Can you talk about how you researched the manuscript and the people you connected with along the way?

Mary Cronk Farrell: I worked on researching Pure Grit over a span of about five years, though I was not focusing steadily on the project. I made concentrated efforts for a few months at a time and then would need to turn my attention elsewhere, for instance I also researched and wrote Journey to the Top of the World during this time as well as writing two drafts of a novel and researching and writing an historical picture book manuscript.

This worked well for Pure Grit because it took time to search for the nurses’ family members, other people I wanted to interview, and photographs. I followed a number of dead ends, as well as being passed from person to person to track information and waiting to hear back from people. In some cases, I have email and snail mail conversations that carried on over two or three years. I had not done a project of this scope before, but my stop-and-go, zigzag method is common, I suppose, for a working writer.

My favorite part was connecting with the nurses’ grown children, and, of course, meeting Retired Army Nurse Mildred Dalton Manning who was the last surviving POW nurse. She lived to be 98 and died a year ago this month.

Q: This is a book that stayed with me long after I'd finished reading it. I called up my parents and told them to look for it, and I've asked friends about their knowledge of these American nurses' experiences. Your book seems appropriate for adults and young readers alike. What made you target a young audience?

MCF: At this point in my career, I am focusing on writing for young people, so that is the main reason I targeted that audience for this book. But I always imagined adults would read it, too. There have been other books written for adults on the topic, but Pure Grit will reach a different segment of adult readers. I intentionally wrote the story to be a quick read for people who live busy lives, and included many photographs to make the story accessible to people who are used to getting information through images.

U.S. Army Nurse Corp Women imprisoned in Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila, Philippine Islands, 1943. (courtesy of Sandy Thor) 

Q: Fire in the Hole, Journey to the Top of the World, Daughters of the Desert. History and historical fiction seem to be your genres of choice. What draws you to this type of storytelling?

MCF: I’ve always loved learning history, but I’m not sure why. As a child reader, historical fiction was my favorite genre. In my middle-school years I read an average of a book a day and most of them were historical fiction. I do know that I’m drawn to stories of people who’ve overcome adversity, because I’ve needed to learn how to do that in my own life. Books have always been an inspiration to me during the rough patches of life, and being able to write one like Pure Grit, which I know will inspire others, is an honor and privilege.

Navy Nurses in Leyte shows U.S. Navy Nurses liberated from Los Ban᷈os Internment Camp, Laguna de Bay, Philippine Islands, February 23, 1945.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from your writing? What do you hope to achieve?

MCF: Besides inspiring people through telling the story of these women’s resilience and courage, I hope readers will ask what we can learn from history. I hope people will be moved to have compassion for our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Not feel sorry for them, not ignore them because they volunteered for duty, but truly see their needs and be moved to listen to their pain and share their struggles.

Q: What will we see next from you?

MCF: My next book is a biography of Labor Leader Fannie Sellins, who was shot to death on the picket line in a 1919 Pennsylvania coal strike.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Kicking Off Women's History Month With Tanya Lee Stone

Once upon a time, when my husband was just a little guy, he believed that all doctors were women. That's because his own mom was an MD. So it made perfect sense to him that this was how the world worked. But as we know, that's not the way it was. Medical schools today are graduating women at roughly equal numbers as men. But there was time when simply the idea of a woman aspiring to be a doctor was laughable.

With the picture book Who Says Women Can't Be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell (Henry Holt, 2013), Tanya Lee Stone takes readers back in time to see what it was like through a young girl's eyes. Named a 2014 Amelia Bloomer Project book, Who Says shows what Elizabeth was like as a young, curious girl. And how she got the idea to become a doctor from a sick friend, who confided that she would rather be examined by a woman than a man. It lays out the challenges and frustrations Elizabeth encountered as she pursued her dream and opened the door for countless other women to pursue theirs. It's a great book to celebrate Women's History Month.

Question: While you have written teen fiction, your specialty seems to be non-fiction. You are the author of at least 15 non-fiction books for young readers – including Courage Has No Color, The True Story of the Triple Nickles America's First Black Paratroopers (Candlewick, 2013) – and 10 non-fiction picture books. What draws you to this genre? Were you been bitten by the research bug early in life?

Tanya Lee Stone: I was an outdoor, tomboyish kid who loved to read and grew up on the rocky coastline of Connecticut, so I feel as though my entire childhood was based in field research! If you pair that with the fact that I am continually amazed by the extraordinary things that "ordinary" people do (there is really no such thing as an ordinary person), it's easy to understand my attraction to non-fiction.

Q: Many of your books focus on pioneering women – Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as well as Amelia Earhart, Ella Fitzgerald, and early female astronauts. Why write about these women?

TLS: The fabric of our history is so riddled with holes that I've been compelled to do my part and fill in as many as I can. This comes down, for me, to stories about women and people of color who have been largely left out of the record.

Q: With Who Says Women Can't Be Doctors? you lay out the challenges Elizabeth Blackwell faced in stark terms for the youngest readers to understand. Who do you hope to reach with your picture books? And what do you hope to accomplish?

TLS: My picture books are both for the standard picture book age range (4-8) as well as for older readers because of the topics I tend to choose. There are two things I'm generally interested in accomplishing with my picture books – capturing the essence of someone incredibly cool who we as readers are not particularly familiar with, and inspiring readers to dream big and not let anything stand in their way.

Q: Parents Magazine named Who Says Women Can't Be Doctors? the Best Non-Fiction Picture Book of 2013. And Booklist listed it a Top 10 Youth Biography. What do awards like these mean to you? Do they help you connect history and non-fiction to even more young readers? 

TLS: There are so many wonderful books that come out every year that don't get the attention they deserve, and it is always a huge honor to be highlighted with these kinds of accolades. Honors like these are also important in terms of elongating the life of a book and helping to keep it in print (and with nonfiction this can be even trickier than with fiction), as well as calling attention to it for readers who might otherwise miss it. For example, the Parents' Magazine press likely alerted a lot more parents than might have known about it. I am extremely grateful.

Q: Do you feel that the publishing world is more interested in non-fiction books these days than in the past? Was there a time when it was hard to sell your non-fiction work?

TLS: That's a bit of a tricky question, depending upon your perspective. While it is true that things like the Common Core have brought more mainstream, trade/bookstore-type attention to non-fiction, it has also been an area that has been strong for a long time because of the need for good non-fiction for kids in the school and library market.

Q: Where do you get your ideas for the next project? What will we see from you next?

TLS: I am always doing research, and always coming across things that elicit emotional responses from within, which can be negative or positive. Things I come across in the news or doing research that make me say, "Wow, how cool, I didn't know that!" are equally compelling to me as when I find something that makes me outraged or confused. I have several books in the pipeline, and the next one up (in 2015) is a picture book about Jane Addams called The House that Jane Built. After that, be on the lookout for more long-form narrative non-fiction from me, as well as new picture books. Thank you so much for getting in touch and Happy Women's History Month!