In 2010, Barb Rosenstock and illustrator Scott Dawson introduced kids to the exciting world of auto-racing – and one brave woman who sped and crashed her way past gender boundaries and onto the track. An exuberent picture book, Fearless explores the life of Louise Smith, one of the first women to race professionally in the United States.
A resident of Vernon Hills, Illinois, Barb Rosenstock has also published The Littlest Mountain, a fable about the ten commandments. Earlier this week, I chatted with her about how Louise Smith still inspires tall tales – and encourages kids to rethink their ideas about gender roles.
Kidsbiographer: When did you first hear about Louise Smith? Did you know much about auto racing before you began the book?
BR: At school visits, I tell children that I got the idea for the book at the most boring place in the world…a dentist’s waiting room. Her obituary was in TIME magazine and not only had I never heard of Louise, I never knew that women raced professionally before the 1970s. I knew next to nothing about auto racing before starting Fearless, but felt the need tell this story of a girl who chased her dreams. Learning about the early days of auto racing was just one of the benefits of researching the story.
Kidsbiographer: In Fearless, you present driving and racing as a way for Smith to escape the restrictions imposed on her as a woman in mid-twentieth century America. While you were conducting your research, did you hear much to suggest that Smith lamented the narrow role society cast for her? Or did she just cheerfully do whatever she wanted?
BR: This is a perfect example of the truth of a biography subject’s life not fitting the author’s preconceptions. When I started interviewing Louise’s friends and fellow drivers, I wanted to hear that she complained, protested and fought against the restrictions placed on women. In actual fact, although she definitely understood prejudice against women, she pretty much “cheerfully” did what she wanted and let her husband, other male drivers and society in general catch up to her. Like many athletes or others that overcome obstacles, she just let her talent do the talking. As an elderly lady, she talked about prejudice against her, about her frustrations with having to prove herself as a woman, but even then her eyes lit up and her spirit shone through every time she talked about racing. No lamenting for this lady.
Kidsbiographer: In your author’s note, you mention that, while you conducted your research, you encountered scores of Louise Smith anecdotes, all of which had different versions. How did you weave the stories together to write Smith’s biography? The text reads much like a good yarn, a tale passed from one generation to another.
BR: Thank you! Each story I heard contributed to the “legend of Louise Smith.” To me, Louise’s life seemed to have more in common with a Bunyan-like legend than average experience. I was trying to weave a picture book that read like a tall tale, yet was factual. In deciding what to put in and what to leave out, I kept the versions of the stories that I heard most often, ones from people who were closest to Louise or ones she told herself. She did change her own stories though, which I found charming and entirely in character.
Kidsbiographer: What was the most challenging aspect of writing Smith’s story for young readers?
BR: As you can imagine, not all her experiences in the early days of auto racing were sunny or appropriate for children. There was plenty of fighting, cussing and drinking–some great stories that didn’t fit the audience. My biggest writing challenge was communicating her frustration with the traditional female role without showing Louise expressly complaining about the establishment. Once I found the “Fast, Faster, Flying, FREE” refrain it seemed to tie all the parts of her life together. She wanted her freedom; she found it behind the wheel.
Kidsbiographer: How have young readers responded to Fearless? Can you share the most satisfying feedback you’ve received from children?
BR: I was surprised that so many boys respond with words like “cool” and “awesome” to this book about a girl. It’s also surprising, but in a way heartening, that many children have little idea that woman used to be prevented from doing simple things like attending higher education or participating in sports. The best feedback I received is from a school that runs a yearly science project to race self-built cars. Boys typically built most of the final entries; but this year after I visited the school with FEARLESS, many entries were from girls who said they wanted to “be like Louise Smith.” That made my week and I wish Louise were still alive to hear that.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or future projects?
BR: I have a new picture book titled The Camping Trip that Changed America, (Dial) illustrated by Caldecott-winner Mordicai Gerstein that should be out for Earth Day next year. That will be followed by a biography William’s Windmill, published by Knopf. A fable called The Littlest Mountain (KarBen) was released this past March. I am always trying to write my first middle-grade novel, but too many picture book ideas interfere (or my brain just can’t think past 1,000 words!) I love the picture book format and have more than twenty manuscripts written or in the works to be published in the coming years. I’m glad I finally followed my own dreams too!