Born in 1911, Elinor Smith began flying lessons at the age of 10 and became the youngest licensed pilot in the U.S. at 16. And 82 years ago today, on October 21, 1928, the 17-year-old did what no other pilot has ever done before or since: she flew her biplane under all four bridges that span New York City’s East River. That feat and Smith’s other flying accomplishments are chronicled in Soar, Elinor!, written by debut author Tami Lewis Brown and illustrated by François Roca and published this month by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. The author became acquainted with Smith’s story decades ago, and finally met the aviatrix herself—who was then 96—while writing the book.
“I grew up in a flying family—my parents were both pilots—and my father was especially passionate about aviation and flying,” Brown says. “Elinor is fairly well known in the aviation community, though I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I learned about her.”
Brown, who earned her pilot’s license at the age of 24, obviously identified with Smith’s love of the air, and this legendary pilot sprang to mind when Brown, a former librarian, began thinking about writing a book. “There have been so many really exciting women pilots who’ve never had more than a few paragraphs or perhaps a chapter written about them,” she says. So Brown decided Elinor Smith deserved her own book.
She began writing what became Soar, Elinor! in spring 2005, when she was a student in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. While there, she was inspired by a presentation given by Melanie Kroupa, who at the time had her own imprint at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. “I was blown away by her knowledge and was very excited by the idea of possibly trying to work with her on my book, though I certainly never thought it would happen,” recalls Brown. But it did. She eventually submitted her manuscript to Kroupa, who offered her a contract in spring 2006.
But the author still had considerable work to do, including extensive research. She was thrilled when the archivists at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum were able to produce photos, scrapbooks, news clippings, and articles about Smith’s years in the sky. And through the Internet she located John Corradi of Culpepper, Va., who took Brown and her then 10-year-old son on a ride in his restored open-cockpit Waco biplane, which was very similar to the one Smith flew under the bridges.
Yet even more exhilarating than that experience was Brown’s encounter with Smith, who died last March at the age of 98. Brown had tracked Smith down with the help of a friend’s husband—and an uncanny hunch. “I knew that Elinor had a son, Patrick Sullivan,” says Brown, “and for some reason I had in my mind that he’d attended the Naval Academy, but I didn’t know why I thought that. I had this feeling that maybe I’d made it up. But I asked my friend’s husband, who also went to the Academy, to help me track him down, and he discovered that Patrick had indeed gone to Navy and he was able to reach him by e-mail. It was a weird but wonderful coincidence.”
Brown traveled from her home in Washington, D.C. to visit Smith in Santa Cruz, Calif., where the two spent a day talking and poring over photos. “It seemed as though we’d known each other for years,” says Brown. “On one level, it was a pilot-to-pilot conversation, but Elinor had also had her own radio show and had been a columnist, so on another level it was also a writer-to-writer conversation. I told her I wanted to make the experience of flying a biplane more vivid to kids, and she knew exactly what kind of description to provide. She was very helpful, and meeting her was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Many of Smith’s first-person quotes Brown incorporated in Soar, Elinor! were plucked from their conversation that day. The aviatrix also produced eight boxes of scrapbooks, letters, and photos that she made available to the author, which led Brown to extend her stay in California. “I immediately changed my departure date, bought a scanner at Office Depot, and spent four or five days scanning everything,” she says. “It was really terrific.”
Eager to further immerse young readers in Smith’s story and women’s history, Brown commissioned Blue Slip Media to create a Women’s History Month activity kit based on Soar, Elinor!, which includes a reproducible board game, word search, crossword puzzle, history quiz, and a list of books about other important historical figures. The kit can be downloaded free on Brown’s Web site. A teacher’s guide to the book is also available on the site.
Gussie Lewis, children’s event coordinator at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., says that she was impressed with the event kit, noting that “it covers different curriculum issues creatively.” Though the format of a recent event at her store with Brown didn’t lend itself to using the kit’s activities, she reports that the 100-plus attendees, including several school classes, were obviously drawn to the book. “The story seemed to resonate with boys as well as girls,” she says. “I thought only girls would buy the book, but I was wrong. The mechanics of flying and how Elinor flew her plane under the bridges interest everyone.”
Brown, whose second book, a novel entitled The Map of Me, is due from FSG next summer, expresses gratitude for the fortuitous twists of fate that helped Soar, Elinor! come to be. “I’m not a mystical sort of person, but this book was almost magical every step of the way,” she says. “If I needed something, it seemed to fall into my hands—as long as I was patient. I think the book truly was meant to be.”
Soar, Elinor! by Tami Lewis Brown, illus. by François Roca. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $16.99 Oct. ISBN 978-0-374-37115-9