What an honor to host Caroline Starr Rose, who shares my passion for bringing stories (and people!) of the past to life for today’s readers. And her experience writing her latest book, A Race Around the World: The True Story of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, illustrated by Alexandra Bye (Wendy Lamb Books) provides a shining example of the joys of research. I stand in complete awe of Caroline for telling this rich, complex and fascinating story in picture book form. You will be in awe, too!
I grew up with a book about the one-of-a-kind, trailblazing journalist, Nellie Bly. In January 2017, I thought I’d try my hand at writing my own book about her. There are a number of children’s books about Nellie — she’s just that interesting. But only a couple focused exclusively on her most famous feat — an around-the-world trip that she hoped to complete in less than 80 days.
It was only in reading Matthew Goodman’s book, EIGHTY DAYS: NELLIE BLY AND ELIZABETH BISLAND’S HISTORY-MAKING RACE AROUND THE WORLD, that I learned Nellie had a competitor named Elizabeth Bisland.* Like Nellie, Elizabeth was a journalist, but that’s where the similarities ended. Twenty-five year old Nellie was plucky and quick. Twenty-eight year old Elizabeth was thoughtful and reserved. Nellie relished the rhythm of newspaper work. Elizabeth preferred the steady pace of a monthly magazine. The more I read, the more fascinated I became with each woman’s story. This was the focus I wanted my own book to take.
When I told my editor, Wendy, about my plan to write Nellie and Elizabeth’s story, she told me she too had grown up with a Nellie book, she’d also recently read Goodman’s EIGHTY DAYS, and a great-great uncle of hers had taken a similar (though less famous) circumnavigational trip. She summed up her interest in one capitalized word: INTRIGUED!
From first idea to finishing edits, this book was an adventure to write. To keep straight all that I was learning, I created an enormous chart showing where each traveler was on any given day. I made note of weather conditions and the names of steamships. I recorded arrival and departure times. I mapped out key moments in each woman’s journey — when Nellie learned of Elizabeth (a steamship officer in Hong Kong informed her “The other woman is going to win”), when Elizabeth missed three steamships in a row — and looked for parallels in their stories, such as seasickness, loneliness, extreme changes in weather, and moments when they both embraced the new world around them (in the midst of their hurried pace).
Illustrator Alexandra Bye did a beautiful job portraying Nellie and Elizabeth. That’s our westward traveler, Elizabeth, on the left, pen in hand, and eastbound Nellie on the right, with the only dress, coat, and bag she brought with her. The steam train and steamship were Nellie and Elizabeth’s primary means of travel. The inclusion of the compass and watch show this race was a journey of distance and time.
I loved delving into the lives of these very different women who nevertheless shared an experience no one else in the world could claim. Both Nellie and Elizabeth “girdled the globe” faster than anyone who’d tried before, even beating the fictional record of Jules Verne’s storybook character, Phileas Fogg.
Most of all, I love knowing a new generation of kids can have Nellie books on their shelves — and one in particular that includes an equally compelling lady journalist named Elizabeth Bisland.
* Did you know another woman raced against Nellie? I didn’t, either! And neither did Nellie. She didn’t find out about Elizabeth until day 39 of the race!
Caroline Starr Rose is a middle grade and picture book author whose books have been ALA-ALSC Notable, Junior Library Guild, ABA New Voices, Kids’ Indie Next, Amazon’s Best Books of the Month for Kids, and Bank Street College of Education Best Books selections. In addition, her books have been nominated for almost two dozen state awards lists. In 2012 Caroline was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start Author for her debut novel, May B. She spent her childhood in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and New Mexico and taught social studies and English in four different states. Caroline lives with her family in New Mexico. You can find her online at www.carolinestarrrose.com, Twitter and Instagram