Just nine years after American women won the right to vote, a group of trailblazing aviatrixes took part in the 1929 Air Derby, the earliest women’s air race across the U.S. In Born to Fly: The First Women’s Air Race Across America, Steve Sheinkin chronicles this enthralling competition and examines the lives of some of its intrepid participants, among them the legendary Amelia Earhart; Marvel Crosson, who built a plane before she even learned to fly; and Elinor Smith, renowned for her 1928 daredevil flight under the Brooklyn Bridge at the age of 17. Art by Bijou Karman and archival photos illustrate this September release from Roaring Brook. Sheinkin spoke with PW about the genesis of his children’s book career and the latest addition to his oeuvre, which includes Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, a 2013 Newbery Honor Book.
When did you realize that you wanted to write historical nonfiction for kids?
Actually, that’s kind of a funny story. I make fun of the fact that nobody really loves reading textbooks, and the other day my daughter Anna, who’s now in eighth grade, came home with one of those monsters in her backpack, and I had a flashback to one of my early jobs as a textbook writer and editor. It was somewhat frustrating, since I was given very limited space for each story—maybe nine lines, since the illustrations and review questions were already in place on the page.
I remember being instructed to write Lewis and Clark’s story, and not being able to fit in the stuff I wanted to include—like the fact that one of the members of the expedition shot Clark in the butt! I may have been naïve, but I did know fifth graders and I really wanted to go for the butt story, but was told I couldn’t, because of space—and because it was inappropriate. I began thinking about telling historical stories the way I wanted to tell them.
Did your textbook experience come in handy when you made that career switch?
Absolutely. I did that job for 10 years, and it was wonderful to be able to do research and write for a living. It was also great practice for becoming an efficient writer. I mean, can you imagine covering Lewis and Clark in an interesting way in nine lines? The job also let me squirrel away story material and I had a lot of good material ready to go—things that I’d had to cut from textbooks. It was actually quite an easy career transition.
What historical topic did you first tackle on your own?
I gravitated toward the American Revolution and realized that Benedict Arnold’s life was the ideal story for me to tell. He was an original action hero—long before anyone had even thought about making movies. I liked the moral ambiguity of his story—he was both a good guy and a bad guy. I wanted to tell a story that was challenging to write but entertaining to read. Benedict Arnold was the perfect person to let me do that, and so I wrote The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery.
What inspired you to focus on pioneer women pilots in Born to Fly?
I am always on the lookout for stories to tell, and often my books end up being about lesser-known stories. I’m constantly saying I don’t believe in supernatural things—inspiration is more a matter of being attuned to potential story ideas. But one day, a friend mentioned a children’s podcast he’d come across about one of the women in the 1929 Air Derby, which I had never heard of. And the next day, I walked into my hotel room and turned on the TV, and the channel it was on was airing a documentary called Breaking Through Clouds—about that same air race. If my friend hadn’t mentioned the race, literally the day before, I likely would have changed the channel! It’s interesting the ways books can come to be.
Specifically, what was it about the story of this air race that grabbed your attention?
For some time, I’d been hoping to do a book with women protagonists, but I didn’t want to pick a story that had been done already. When I found this story, I knew it had all the elements I look for and love, including featuring lesser-known people. The fact that it’s a race was ideal since I always want my books to be plot-driven. I always strive to write what people refer to as “page turners,” and since I write nonfiction, I can’t invent anything. So, I need stories that have a great plot that can be corroborated, and when I find that, I feel as though I’m on to a winner.
How did you go about researching the 1929 Air Derby?
As little known as it is today, this race was front-page news every day in every U.S. city during the nine days it took to complete it. I was fortunate there were so many sources that let me get to know the story from the pilots’ points of view. Many of them were famous ahead of the race because of their record-setting flights, so I had access to many stories about and interviews with them. To find so many first-person quotes, and better yet dialogue—things you can’t make up when writing nonfiction—let me write in the “thriller-y” narrative style I always strive for. And it was a built-in, fast-moving plot. To me, it was like finding a gold mine, even if it’s a nerdy gold mine!
Are you gratified that Born to Fly is off to a soaring start, with multiple starred reviews?
I keep thinking how lucky I was to find this great story that few people knew—that has been rewarding. Also, there is a meaningful personal component to the inspiration for and creation of this book. My daughter dressed up as Amelia Earhart when she was eight, which I thought was an inspired choice of costume at that young age. And she and I have spent time together at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on visits to Washington, D.C., including when I was researching this book. I am doing my best to raise a fellow history nerd!
Born to Fly: The First Women's Air Race Across America by Steve Sheinkin, illus. by Bijou Karman. Roaring Brook, $19.99 Sept. ISBN 978-1-62672-130-2.