Tami grew up in a flying family. Her father, mother, and even her little sister were pilots, and soon Tami earned her pilots license, too. She even owned a small plane and practiced aviation law before turning to writing books for middle-grade readers full time.
SOAR, ELINOR! is the true story of pioneer aviatrix Elinor Smith. It has already been nominated for the American Library Association’s Amelia Bloomer List, earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly and a rave from Kirkus… and it’s just landing in bookstores and libraries today.
But… hold on a minute. Soar, Elinor! is a picture book. They’re for little kids, not middle graders, right?
Wrong! Soar, Elinor! is the biography of aviatrix Elinor Smith. That means it’s nonfiction- an absolutely true story, and picture books are a perfect format for middle-grade nonfiction. The illustrations add context and meaning. What did people wear in the 1920’s? What does a biplane look like? It’s all there for savvy middle-grade readers to discover in the pages of a picture book biography.
I was lucky to have Francois Roca, a great French illustrator to do the pictures for Soar, Elinor! He created nearly two dozen oil paintings for this book. Almost every page is what we call a “two page spread”- the picture stretches across both pages. His illustrations draw readers back into the 1920s and right into the cockpit of Elinor’s tiny plane. When I first saw Francois’ illustrations it felt like I flying right along with Elinor.
Why do you write for middle grade readers? Why is Elinor Smith’s story appropriate for this age group?
Middle-graders are fluent readers but they’re still learning and wondering about the world around them. When I sit down to write it’s almost as if I become a middle grade reader again, making all those discoveries for the first time. My teacher Norma Fox Mazer said I’m a nine year old at heart. I think she was right!
I’m excited about introducing Elinor to middle-grade readers because Elinor herself found her passion as a middle-grader. Elinor flew for the first time when she was only six years old- in a little plane that looked more like a box kite than an airplane. She fell in love with flying right then and there. She started flying lessons when she was ten years old and by the time she was sixteen she was setting world records for altitude and endurance. Elinor was a brave, passionate girl who followed her dreams. I know her story will inspire today’s kids as much as it inspired me.
Elinor Smith was a real person. What research did you do?
Research was honestly one of the most fun parts of this projects. I found everything from actual paint charts for the model plane Elinor flew (which I passed on to Francois and which he used when painting Elinor’s planes in the book) to what the interior of a 1920’s biplane looked like.
My research started with Elinor Smith’s own autobiography AVIATRIX but it didn’t end there! I’m lucky to live in Washington D.C. so my first call was to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Air and Space is one of the world’s most visited museums but most people don’t realize they also have an incredible library and archive of aviation related material. When I arrived for my appointment the archivists handed me boxes of original magazines and news clippings about Elinor’s flights. There were telegrams and letters. Even an old photo album. Later Smithsonian aircraft restorers answered loads of questions- everything from the sound of a Farman Pusher biplane engine to which instruments a Waco 10 would have on its panel.
I knew flying an open cockpit biplane would be different than the modern planes I’m certified to pilot. And I knew I needed to fly a plane like Elinor’s to really understand what it was like to fly under the East River bridges. But nearly every antique Waco biplane from the barnstormer days is hanging unflyable in a museum or rusted in an old barn. Finally I found a pilot with a gorgeous restored Waco who agreed to take me and my ten year old son up. What an experience! The roar of the engine, the smell of the exhaust, the limited visibility over the plane’s cowling (what we call a hood on a car) Now I knew first hand how Elinor felt when she took off in her father’s Waco 10.
Finally I found Elinor herself. At age 96 I’d feared she might not remember the flights or she might be insulted that I “presumed” to write her story. I needn’t have worried. Elinor was as thrilled at the idea of having a children’s book based on her exploits as I was to write it. After several long phone calls she invited me to visit her in California. We spent hours reminiscing about her flying career then my good writer friend Zu Vincent and I spent days scanning every photograph and paper in Elinor’s collection.
In all I read dozens of articles, scores of books, and thousands of notes, scraps, and odds and ends. I watched hours of film and combed through thousands upon thousands of pictures. Researching this book wasn’t easy but I can honestly say I enjoyed every minute.
How are you sharing the story of Soar, Elinor! with young people?
The book is the most important part, of course, but my website is loaded with other material to help bring Elinor and her world alive. I have a free teachers’ guide geared toward second through fifth graders. My activity kit for Women’s History Month has a board game, seek and find, crossword and more that younger and older kids will enjoy. There are links to an internet radio station that plays 1920s music Elinor would have listened to in her flying days and a site where you can listen to live broadcasts from air traffic control towers all over the country- it puts kids right inside the cockpit. After lots of searching I found actual 1920s newsreel footage of Elinor shooting for altitude and endurance records which I’ve posted. Last but not least, every morning I post a new milestone from women’s aviation history on my blog On The Fly.
How does it feel to be a debut author?
Thrilling! Sometimes dreams come true aren’t as good as you’d expected but everything about Soar, Elinor! has been fabulous. 110 times better than I ever dreamed. Sharing the book with kids is the best part of all.
In their starred review, Publishers Weekly said “Look out, Amelia Earhart. This underdog story features a lesser-known female pilot who gained eminence in the 1920s. At age 16, Elinor Smith became the youngest pilot in the U.S. But when newspapers belittled her accomplishment, she took a dare to fly under one of New York City’s bridges–upping the ante by flying under four of them. Roca’s clean, vivid oils set the bold shapes of Elinor’s planes against sweeping backgrounds of pea-green airfields and hazy blue skies. Debut author Brown skillfully builds suspense as Elinor studies each bridge, plans her route, and takes flight, leading to a nail- biting conclusion. It’s a stirring tale of determination and moxie.”
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