A devotee of feminist history and a fashion-industry maven might seem a volatile author-illustrator combination, yet Shana Corey and Chesley McLaren make an auspicious match in You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer! (Scholastic), their gleeful skewering of "proper ladies." Amelia details how its title character shocked 1850s Seneca Falls, N.Y., by wearing the billowy pants that came to bear her name ("bloomers"). Yet although Amelia Bloomer campaigned for women's suffrage and the temperance movement, this is no textbook history.
Shana Corey, currently an associate editor at Random House Children's Books, conceived of her story (and its catchy title jibe) while an editorial assistant at Random. She drew from her studies at Smith College, where she majored in government and focused on women's history. She also mined her childhood memories of Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy titles and Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books. "When you take women's history classes, you always hear that women have been left out," she says. "But they are in history, because they're in the kids' books. There are so many strong female characters."
Corey composed a first draft and shared it with her Random House colleague, editor Heidi Kilgras. Amelia didn't fit Random's mass-market line of early readers and chapter books, but Kilgras introduced Corey to Scholastic editor Tracy Mack, who accepted the manuscript. Under Mack's direction, Corey pruned the history-heavy narrative and preserved its weightier facts in an afterword. The final version crisply explains how Amelia edited a women's newspaper and borrowed her distinctive look from Elizabeth Cady Stanton's cousin Libby. Thanks to her liberating garments, Amelia "ran and jumped and twirled ... and did all the things she had always wanted to do."
Corey hadn't envisioned Amelia as a fashion story until Mack showed her some of Chesley McLaren's modish illustrations. A graduate of Boston's School of the Museum of Fine Arts, McLaren had worked as a Seventh Avenue clothing designer until 1989, when Bloomingdale's hired her as an illustrator. McLaren developed a reputation for Parisian flair, and most recently lent her signature style to Saks Fifth Avenue's children's department. "I was known for drawing snooty-looking women that always had their noses in the air," she says. "Saks asked me to do a series of mannequins that basically look like bratty East Side kids. That was the first full-fledged children's thing I did."
When art director Marijka Kostiw spied McLaren's work in the New York Times, the illustrator came to Scholastic's attention. After meeting with Kostiw and Mack, she read Amelia and began photo research on upstate New York, circa 1851. This led to an aesthetic crisis for the Francophile: "Women were wearing these ugly bonnets. At age 20 they had these mean mugs!" she says, evidently appalled. "I had to Marie Antoinette it up a little bit."
McLaren restrained her impulse to gussy up her characters with flowers and bows, but her breezy Amelia is as likely to float through a garden as to fire off an editorial. "None of my people ever have their feet on the ground," McLaren admits, alluding to her gouaches of swaying, ethereal sophisticates. When she worried that her work was too "wild and frivolous" to suit "a serious woman who did important things," she simply remembered Corey's opening line: "Amelia Bloomer was not a proper lady."
Nevertheless, after her immersion in the American 19th century, McLaren sounds relieved to be back in 2000, working on as-yet-untitled projects. Corey remains inspired by history--her book on the All-American Girls Baseball League, illustrated by Brian Selznick, will be published by Scholastic in 2002--but she looks to the fictional future as well in First Graders from Mars, a projected Scholastic series to be illustrated by Mark Teague and scheduled for fall 2001.
Most of all, Amelia seems to have whetted Corey's fascination with "olden-days clothes" and pioneering girls. "When I was little, I would make up stories about what would happen if I met Laura Ingalls Wilder," she muses. "Sometimes I still think of that when I'm riding the subway: What would she think of what we're wearing?"