Monday, January 16, 2017

In Honor of MLK day. Flygirl by Sherri L Smith.

by Hilde Garcia
This is a repost.  And if you are looking for the Feel Good movie of the year, race to see Hidden Figures.
Sherri's most recent book is The Toymaker's Apprentice Winner of the
Southern California Independent Booksellers Association Award
for Middle Grade.
Flygirl, a YA novel by Sherri L. Smith, tells the story of Ida Mae Jones, a girl with a passion to fly. There’s only one problem. She’s a light skinned black girl and isn’t allowed. So when the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) is formed during WWII, Ida Mae Jones faces a fork in the road. Does she sign up and pass for white? Or does she stay in Slidell, New Orleans and continue to clean the Wilson’s home?

I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Smith at The Mother/Daughter Book Party at The Flintridge Bookstore this past January, where 11 fabulous YA/MG authors came and chatted with young ladies and their moms about books, writing and life. 

Sherri, when you heard the NPR broadcast about the WASP, how did you know you were meant to write Flygirl?

That's an interesting way of putting it. I don't think of it as "meant" to be, but rather "wouldn't that be interesting?" I start out hoping to write a story, but you don't know whether or not it will end up being what you intended to write. Listening to the Radio Diaries piece, there was a line that sparked my interest—about farm girls and heiresses being thrown together for training. I thought it, "What a great story." And then I put my own ideas into it—what it would mean for an African-American girl in the same situation, and went from there. 

How did you balance all the facts we needed to know without losing your strong fictional voice of Ida? 

I have a funny way of researching projects. I start with picture books on the topic, because they give the straight scoop. Then I read the bibliographies on those books and sort of work my way up the reading levels. If I've got my story ideas, I'll write them first. I knew Ida's story, so I outlined it, wrote the parts I knew, then researched until I knew more, and kept going back and forth between writing and more research until the book filled in completely. But I always knew Ida Mae. 

What kind of research did you do? Did you fly an airplane? Have things changed for black female pilots in today’s world? 

Most of my research was secondary sources—books, documentaries, museum exhibits. There was not as much available on the WASP when I wrote the book as there is today. So I did a lot of WWII research in general, and went to airplane museums. I spoke to friends that are pilots, but I didn't fly in any vintage planes myself. (No, I am not a pilot!) I don't know the stats on black women in aviation today, but I'd say things have changed for female pilots in general, if not by the leaps and bounds. According to the American Airlines website, of the 115,000 commercial pilots in the US in 2007, only 7,100 are female. That's what, 6%? Not a lot, but considering the first female pilot wasn't hired until 1973, and men have been flying since the days of Orville and Wilbur Wright, I guess its progress. 

Tell me about your thesis project and how Flygirl became part of it. 

I was working on an MA in Humanities with a concentration in Creative Writing from CSU Dominguez Hills and I knew my thesis was going to be a novel. In fact, it's part of a novel and includes a scholarly analysis of young adult literature, which really informs my philosophy on writing YA. At the time I had two ideas I was developing, which became Flygirl and my third novel, Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet. My thesis advisor, Dr. Abe Ravitz, had served in WWII, so it seemed like a natural fit. 

You mentioned that Flygirl was developed as a thesis project. Was this part of an MFA program? Do you think Flygirl would still be grounded if it weren’t for the program? Is there anything unique about the project that ensured the completion of FG? 

While I believe Dr. Ravitz' input was invaluable, there's no way I would have not written this book, degree or no degree. It was more a matter of when I would write it. Where Dr. Ravitz really helped was in encouraging me to make the book as complex as it is. There were times when I thought the WASP story was enough. I didn't need to add the racial element, even though that's what made it sing to me personally. Sometimes it takes a cheerleader saying you can do it to help you get it done. 

I noticed the long list of accolades for Flygirl. Is there any of them that really surprised you when you received the honor? 

All of them. When I write, my goal is to do the best job I can with a book and not "muff it up" as we used to say when I was kid. Then it's to send it out into the world and hope it does well. Any time an email or a letter shows up saying "hey, we liked this," I'm thrilled. Books are like my kids—I'd like to think I'm raising fools, but you never really know until someone from the outside says "Well Done!" 

When you visit schools, how do the boys react to Flygirl? Do they seem shocked that women flew the planes during the World War II, as well, if not better than most men? 

I actually think that's a prejudice reserved for older generations. Boys like the airplane stuff—the details of flight, but so do the girls. I think the sense of adventure in the story speaks to both genders. I've heard from a lot of girls that want to be pilots (grown women too!), and older men who are WWII buffs. I'd say that's the biggest compliment, when a white-haired gentleman in an army green flight jacket and WWII commemorative baseball cap comes up and asks me to sign the book. That's priceless. 

The reader never knows if Ida will be caught passing for white. The reader doesn’t expect what happens to her friends. And what if she is caught posing as a white woman? What would have been the consequences? Did you and your agent consider a different ending for the book? 

The consequences could have been quite severe, especially depending on who caught her. She's breaking military law and social norms. That could be a court marshal, jail, or violence if she was caught by civilians. I never considered a different ending for the book because I think of Ida's situation as being that of all of the women in that period. Once she finds where she belongs, she can still be so easily ousted, as so many women were once the war ended and the men needed their jobs back. It's a terrible position to be in, and I wanted the reader to be there with her. 

Passing as white is still a controversial topic. In your NPR interview, you said that “it’s not glorious, it’s just factual, it’s part of life.” Do you think African-American people today still “pass for white?” How have perceptions changed? 

Absolutely, people still pass today, and not just for white. People pass for the "not persecuted" group, if they think it's safer or more beneficial. They pass for religious in the Bible belt, or not religious in the agnostic big city, for rich, for poor, for gay, for straight. I was in college during the first Iraq war and I very clearly remember hearing an Iranian girl describe herself as something other than Iranian for fear of reprisal. Consider "don’t' ask, don't tell" in the military. That's government sanctioned passing! The world has not changed as much as we might like to think. 

How did race affect your selection of subject matter? Were you particularly drawn to it because of your ethnicity? 

I was drawn to the story of the WASP because of the classic underdog narrative, and the strange bedfellows it made. As I said, the idea of farm girls and heiresses bunking together just grabbed me. The ethnic element came about because I was riffing on the idea of rights, expectations and the second-class citizen. Stories my mother told me about her childhood in the South came to mind, and the rest grew from the marriage of the two. 

Was your ethnicity an advantage for you as an author? Is this bicultural trend here to stay? 

The word "bicultural" makes me angry. What does that mean? There is the American culture, and if you want to break ethnicity down into cultures, then there are certainly more than two. As long as there are as many different types of people in this world as there are, we will write about them. That's not a trend, that's just life. As far as the advantages of being a black writer, I'm not sure what they are. There is a tendency in the publishing world to think that black writers should "write black." My main characters are people from all walks of life. I have to do my research to make them sound authentic, but the world is my palette. I don't believe in sticking to monochromes.

Tell us about your fifth novel. It also takes place in New Orleans, but present day. Now, according to your biography, you have lived all over the country, but not in New Orleans. Any reason you seem to be drawn to this area? 

The novel you are speaking of is actually set in the near-future, not the present. It's speculative fiction that takes place in a possible New Orleans. I'm drawn to New Orleans because my mother is from there and it is a fantastic city. I visited my grandparents in the house my mom grew up in every summer of my childhood. I'm not a native, but it's a part of me as much as any other city in which I've lived. 

During the event at the Bookstore, we discussed a high school writing program for students that would span all four years, beginning with their freshman year and an idea for a novel and ending in their senior year graduation with a completed novel. Do you think it is possible? 

Actually, I think four years is almost too long. I would love to do something along these lines over the course of one year, at least for the first draft. I do think this is possible, but the question is whether the curriculum would allow for it. We live in a test-taking age, and that would have to be considered. Still, wouldn't it be fantastic to have a novel-writing track at school? What would that do for the book world—readers and writers alike! 

The young ladies at your table were excited. Both of them were very good short story writers, but their biggest fear was how to make that into a whole book.  Do you think this type of program could give birth to a new generation of young and strong writers? 

Undoubtedly. We're told that books are a fading form that people don't want to read, but I disagree. Everyone loves a story, whether it's gossip, news, a movie or the printed word. Video games are so compelling in part because they involve the player in the world of the game. If we gave kids that sort of access, by having them create the world and invent the story, I think it could lead to an exciting new wave of creative intelligence and engagement. 

I’d like to thank Sherri for this interview. For more about Sherri L. Smith, visit her website at

1 comment:

  1. Interesting how Sherri starts her research with picture books, I hadn't heard of anyone doing that before, but her reasons make sense. Congrats to Sherri on her book!


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