At Midwinter 2010 in Boston, the winner of the inaugural YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults will be announced. To celebrate this award, the YALSA blog will be publishing interviews with some of the shortlisted authors. Our next interview is with Tanya Lee Stone, author of Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream.
The Nonfiction Committee on Almost Astronauts: “In the early 1960s, the doctor in charge of testing NASA’s astronauts decided to find out if female pilots were capable of passing the grueling qualification tests required of male pilots. Feasible? Yes. Allowed? No. All testing of women’s potential for the Mercury program was done outside NASA’s purview and without their permission. The reasons why will stun readers.”
YALSA Blog: Congratulations on being included on the shortlist for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults! What was your reaction to being included on the shortlist for this first-ever award?
Tanya Lee Stone: I was ecstatic! It’s such an honor to be included, and so exciting to be part of the first year’s celebration.
YALSA Blog: What drew you to the stories of the Mercury 13?
Tanya Lee Stone: I came across a one-sentence reference to them in a newspaper article and was immediately intrigued. I knew my women’s history pretty well and had never heard of them. Once I started digging, I was fascinated by what happened to them and wanted to fully understand the scope of their story.
YALSA Blog: You write eloquently about the challenges and discrimination faced by women in the 1960s. Why did you stress this point in your book?
Tanya Lee Stone: It was so important to me to give young readers the context they would need in order to truly understand the weight of this story, and how it is relevant to their lives today. We all need to know on whose shoulders we stand. Fortunately, most kids today don’t have much first-hand experience with gender discrimination–we live in a time where girls can do almost anything boys can. And in order to consciously appreciate the rights girls and women have today, I felt it was crucial to really ground readers in what life used to be like for women in America not so long ago.
YALSA Blog: How did writing Almost Astronauts inspire you? Did you get your pilot’s license, as the surviving members of the Mercury 13 encouraged you to do so?
Tanya Lee Stone: I have not gotten it yet, but I fully intend to at some point. This story is a powerful example of how our lives are all interconnected–how the path someone took in the past can be related to your path in the present or future. These women paved the way for countless others; some who were aware of it, and some who were not. That’s an incredible and inspiring idea. I also find these women an excellent example of the importance of staying true to who you are no matter the obstacles. Regardless of the fact that they did not succeed at becoming astronauts, most of them continued in aviation and achieved other goals and dreams.
YALSA Blog: Are there any benefits or challenges to writing about events where witnesses are still alive?
Tanya Lee Stone: There were most definitely both benefits and challenges! Primary source information is a beautiful thing. It is also a tricky thing. A writer must weigh all sides and consider the source. I had to factor in the knowledge that these first-hand accounts had their own unique perspectives and do my best to make sure that any first-hand, first-person information I ended up using meshed within the context of everything else I knew and learned. There were certainly comments and memories I did not use for those reasons. But all in all, it was exciting. It was also wonderful to be able to send all the surviving women copies of the manuscript and get their feedback.
YALSA Blog: What is the appeal of writing nonfiction, especially nonfiction for young people?
Tanya Lee Stone: What isn’t the appeal?! I find that the most fascinating stories in the world are true ones. It is the accomplishments and challenges and obstacles and victories that real people experience that make our world a place of learning every where you turn. I love nothing more than finding a story in which I can continue to be a learner and then sharing what I discover with kids.
For me, the appeal is also in the research itself. For this book it was an exhilarating span of several years in which I continued to dig and find out as much as I possibly could in order to put the pieces of the puzzle together. I also love the relationships that develop through the course of doing research. It led me to the women themselves, of course, but it also led me to Margaret Weitekamp at the National Air & Space Museum, who published a stellar adult book on the topic as a result of her Ph.D. thesis. Weitekamp made herself accessible to me, we were able to discuss nuanced points within the story, she served as an expert reviewer for the book and even wrote the Foreword. Delving deep into a topic and being exhaustive about research in this way is one of the things I enjoy most about writing nonfiction for kids.
YALSA Blog: What five words would you use to describe Almost Astronauts?
Tanya Lee Stone: pioneers, empower, infuriate, inspire, dream
YALSA Blog: Is there a nonfiction book you particularly admire?
Tanya Lee Stone: There are many–some of the books I have both devoured and learned from are John Lennon by Elizabeth Partridge, Unsettled: The Problem of Loving Israel by Marc Aronson, The Lincolns by Candace Fleming, The Glorious Flight by Alice and Martin Provenson, and The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein.
YALSA Blog: Can you tell us anything about what you’re currently working on?
Tanya Lee Stone: I have just finished a book about the history of the Barbie doll and its impact on culture, which will be out Fall 2010. My next picture book is about Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the first woman doctor in America and I’m extremely jazzed that Marjorie Priceman is illustrating it (as we speak). And the next long-form nonfiction book on deck is called Courage Has No Color, which is another little-known episode in American history about the first black paratroopers in World War II, whose bravery resulted in their integration into the 82nd Airborne more than 6 months before the military officially ended segregation.
YALSA Blog: Thank you, Tanya!