Sunday, March 30, 2014

Writing nonfiction that honors women in history: an interview with Tracey Fern

As I explore Women's History Month with students, I want to help them think about how they can honor women in history. We talk about honoring women in their lives, because for young students the immediate it so important. But I'm also fascinated by the way authors investigate women whose stories we might not have heard yet.

Today, I'm thrilled to share with you an interview with Tracey Fern about her journey to learn about the life of Eleanor Prentiss and then writing Dare the Wind. My questions are in red; Tracey's answers follow in black.

MS: How did you first learn about Eleanor? What drew you to her story?

TF: I first learned about Eleanor when I was browsing through my local bookstore and happened upon David Shaw's book, Flying Cloud. I'm always on the lookout for strong female characters, and so I knew instantly that I wanted to write about Eleanor. Eleanor's story also combined adventure and science, two elements that I'm also often drawn toward. Finally, I'm a Massachusetts gal who grew up with the ocean and the beach in my backyard, and I love that Eleanor grew up here, too!

MS: Did you travel at all to do your research? What was your research process like?

TF: I traveled to Marblehead, Massachusetts while writing Dare the Wind. Marblehead was Eleanor's home town, and parts of the town still look much the way I imagine they looked when Eleanor walked its cobbled streets. I also visited the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut and toured the USS Constitution in Boston harbor to get myself in a seafaring state of mind! My research process for this book was different from my usual research, because there are relatively few primary sources available. As a result, I relied more heavily on secondary sources than I typically do.

MS: I was amazed at how well you conveyed being on a ship at sea in a storm. Have you sailed like this at all?

TF: Thank you! I've been sailing before but never under the challenging conditions that Eleanor faced. I'm so happy that I could convey the sensations of being on a ship at sea in a storm to readers.
MS: Did you provide any guidance to Emily McCully to help her make sure the illustrations were historically accurate? What details do you want children to notice in the illustrations?

TF: I adore Emily's illustrations! She did her own research to ensure that her illustrations were accurate. I did send Emily a very detailed description of the Flying Cloud that was published at the time of the ship's launch. Some of the details that I love in Emily's illustrations are the wonderful spread of the Flying Cloud at the pier in New York City, the view of Ellen (Eleanor) below deck working on her charts which beautifully captures the feeling of motion in the tilt of the lamp above her head, and the cover illustration which shows the figurehead of an angel on the prow of the ship, mirroring Ellen and her telescope on deck. I especially love the cover illustration because it seems to capture the forward movement of Ellen's amazing journey!
MS: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Eleanor doing your research?

TF: The most surprising thing about Eleanor was just how ahead of her time she was. Not only did she assumed the role of navigator at a time when that was absolutely atypical for a woman, she also embraced the new navigational theories of Matthew Fontaine Maury, which went against the prevailing wisdom of the time. Eleanor was clearly a force to be reckoned with!

MS: Did you have to leave anything out that you really wanted to include?

TF: There's always so much more I'd love to include in all of my books! Believe it or not, Eleanor's journey was filled with even more exciting incidents, including a threatened mutiny that I simply couldn't include. I would have also loved to have included more details about Donald McKay, the builder of the Flying Cloud, and the ship-building process, but perhaps that's material for another book!

Thanks so much for your interest in Dare the Wind!

Thank you, Tracey! I loved sharing this story with students, and hearing their reactions. Eleanor was definitely a force to be reckoned with!

For more information, definitely check out Tracey's website. Illustration copyright © 2013 by Emily Arnold McCully, shared by permission from the publisher. The review copy was kindly sent by the publishers, Margaret Ferguson Books, Farrar Straus Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan Books. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books (at no cost to you!). Thank you for your support.

©2014 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books


  1. Great interview, Mary Ann! Tracey's books all seem to have an amazing immediacy. It's interesting to hear more about how she does that.

  2. Great interview! This book is in my "to review" crate . Can't wait to spend time with it.

  3. Good interview and a great introduction to the book. Wish I had read it before I wrote my review of Dare the Wind: I agree that the artwork "catches the forward movement of Ellen's amazing journey." Very nicely put.

  4. Love this book and how terrific to learn more from Tracey about her research! I reviewed it for Women's History Month at Good Reads with Ronna. The story about mutiny has piqued my interest and I'll look for Shaw's book as well. There's always so much more to the story that just won't fit in the (picture) book!