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5 Questions With... Tanya Lee Stone

by Tanya Lee Stone
 | Jul 15, 2011
Tanya Lee Stone is a former editor and award-winning author who often writes about strong women. She has garnered starred reviews and other accolades for books such as Up Close: Ella Fitzgerald and the highly popular Amelia Earhart. In honor of the upcoming July 20th anniversary of the first moon landing, we thought we''d talk to Tanya about her book Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream. It''s the story of the Mercury 13—highly trained female pilots who fought to be accepted into the NASA astronaut training program when it was still considered a man''s world. The Mercury 13 didn''t get their chance to take that small step, but their journey translated into a giant leap for womankind.

The Horn Book described Almost Astronauts as “meticulously researched and thrillingly told.” What was your research process like, and how did you develop the voice of this book?

My research spanned more than six years, off and on, for this book. The process called for a more journalistic approach than I had ever reached for in the past because it was a little-known story and there were scattered pieces of it to be found and put together. I also needed to be sure I set it in enough historical context to make sense to people who were not yet born in the ''50s and ''60s so they could truly understand the significance of the story.

In terms of finding the voice, that evolved from two major pathways of the work I was doing. The first was related to the fact that my initial drafts were in picture book form, which I then blew out and expanded into long-form nonfiction. The process of boiling things down for the picture book version, though, allowed me to discover an essence of the women and their experience, some of which I was able to keep in the longer version.

The second pathway was meeting the actual women involved. Being able to spend time with the “Mercury 13” women and hear their actual voices—their opinions, perspectives, relationships with each other, how they walked, talked, what some of their personality traits were—all of these things informed the overall voice of the book.

Most books on women’s rights focus on women who ultimately found success. Why did you think it was important to tell the stories of “almost astronauts” like Jerrie Cobb, who didn’t get the chance to their dreams?

Well, because many people who effect overall change in society never get the win for themselves! Change is hard, and usually takes a long time. It’s valuable to look at the stories of people who break down boundaries and pave the way for those who come up after them, whether or not they were able to enjoy the fruits of their own labor. In my mind, that makes them even more heroic.

This isn’t your first astronaut book—you’re also the author of Ilan Ramon: Israel’s First Astronaut. Where does this interest come from?

I think the interest in both instances was less about the fact that they were astronauts and more about the fact that they were all pioneers. I am very attracted to stories about people taking risks and challenging themselves as well as others.

Back to women: you’ve also written about such strong female figures as Ella Fitzgerald, Amelia Earhart, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. What other women would you love to write about, and do you have any more biographies in the works?

So many women, so little time! After Almost Astronauts, I wrote The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie: A Doll''s History and Her Impact on Us. It''s about Ruth Handler, who was a Jewish woman who co-founded (with her husband) one of the biggest toy companies in the world, Mattel. That is an interesting story! And I have two more women’s history picture books slated to come out in 2013 and 2014 (both Henry Holt). One is about Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the first woman doctor in America. That is being illustrated by the fabulous Marjorie Priceman and is called Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? The other is about Jane Addams and is called The House that Jane Built.

My next book is also a biography, but the focus is on a group of amazing men. Courage Has No Color (Candlewick) is another little-known episode in American history that I have had the pleasure of piecing together to share. It is about the first all-black unit of paratroopers in WWII, who were integrated in the army more than 6 months before the Executive Order for integration, yet were never sent overseas into combat. But they fought a threat during WWII on American soil that most people have never heard of, which involved the Japanese and balloon bombs. Courage Has No Color—like Almost Astronauts—involved years of extensive research and I am thrilled to have just completed it.

What are some of your favorite nonfiction writing activities or exercises that lend themselves to use in the classroom?

I love doing an exercise called “What happened at lunch today?” This is an exercise about perspective, point of view, and what the “truth” really means. Basically, I ask for a volunteer to tell me something interesting that happened in the cafeteria that day (or a recent day). I preface this by saying it’s something that had to have several people involved, either directly or indirectly.

After the first person tells his or her version of what happened, I ask for hands of anyone else who was involved. Then we go through each of their versions as well. It is quickly apparent that the “facts” change a bit with the different points of view. If there was a victim in a situation, that perspective will be much different than the one of the perpetrator, for example. Likewise, the eye witnesses. Further, if one eyewitness is a best friend of the victim and one is a best friend of the perpetrator, those accounts will also be infused with their perspectives.

This leads to an interesting discussion about how all history is imbued with the perspectives of those writing it. I then share with them some of the checks and balances I go through to make sure I am being as accurate as possible when I write about history.

Want to learn more? Watch Tanya talk about Almost Astronauts in this C-Span video, which can be viewed for free on the web, that was recorded during her March 2009 presentation at the Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C. Then, check out this Calendar Event from

© 2013 Int'l Reading Association. Author photo: Ambient Photography. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

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