MOWMT Day #24: Shari Becker & Louisa Jaggar Break the Rules
An in-depth look at the creation of Sprouting Wings: The True Story of James Herman Banning, the First African American Pilot to Fly Across the United States, an inspiring Mentor Text
Breaking the “Rules” in Nonfiction:
By Shari Becker & Louisa Jaggar
Louisa: When my friend Pat Smith was doing research for the National Geographic Centennial of Flight project, she stumbled upon a small article about James Herman Banning, a pilot from Oklahoma who was the first African American to fly cross country. She had never heard of him and she lived in Oklahoma and taught school there. How was it that no one knew his name and what he accomplished? I was instantly intrigued, and we began doing research. We reached out to Banning’s Great Nephew, and we reached out to the Smithsonian. They shared what they had, but a great deal had been lost—-in particular the list of folks who had contributed and made the journey possible. Banning and his co-pilot, Thomas Cox Allen, called the list the Gold Book. We were told that information was gone forever. That’s when we started breaking rules, I guess. We knew there had to be more information somewhere. Pat began visiting all the museums and historical societies in Oklahoma. She even climbed into an attic and began sorting through boxes. That’s when she found our first primary source, a manuscript written by Allen that had been thought long lost. No one even knew it existed!
Shari: When I joined the project, Louisa and Pat had already accumulated all the materials. They had tons of primary and secondary sources. Like binders and binders. Mounds of paperwork. We co-wrote a manuscript that we were proud of, and Floyd Cooper fell in love with Banning’s story, and we sold this manuscript that was simply too long. Our editor gave us strict instructions to cut back and get the manuscript down to the industry standard, 32 pages. I’m inherently a rules follower, and I was determined to accomplish this goal. We whittled away, bit by bit. It was grueling – so hard to cut any of the details, which were all so important.
Louisa: So imagine Shari’s surprise when she woke up one morning and got a voicemail message from me saying….
Shari: The message went something like this: “Don’t be upset, I just added four pages to the book about the ground plane.” I thought I was going to have a meltdown. My heart was racing, and I was sweating. We’d spent so much time (So. Much. Time.) cutting the manuscript and she ADDED pages? Little Miss Type A rule follower, me, could not process this new information.
Louisa: She means we had words. Ha ha ha! I knew in my heart that to really tell this story … to really get the chronology and timeline … we couldn’t get it all into 32 pages. There was just too much to get in. I offered her an egg…
Shari: Yes, she gave me an egg. She found this fact in a newspaper about how when Banning went to the movies, one could pay for their movie with one egg, and all I could think was: “Kids are going to love this!”
Louisa: And she made the manuscript even longer herself! We sent the editor the new manuscript.
Shari: (I was beside myself.)
Louisa: Our editor loved it. She agreed the new information needed to stay, and so we wrote a picture book that exceeded the 32 page limit. It’s over 40 pages. We broke the rules. We broke the rules because the story demanded it. And we were lucky our editor felt the same way. But if I had not been willing to break the rules, much of the story would have been lost and I couldn’t do that to BANNING.
Shari: Neither could I – even though it made me slightly nauseated to not do what we were supposed to do. We followed our instincts and listened to the story. And we didn’t break the most important rules. Our sources were rock solid. We had primary sources that included interviews, newspaper articles and manuscripts. Our quotes were all quotes that real people had said.
Louisa: Every single one!!
Shari: Louisa and I met in a class with our mentor, Patricia Lee Gauch. Patti always told us to listen to our guts – that it’s okay to break the rules if you can really make it work. And there are times when you have to break the rules to make it work. Our book would not have been as good without those extra pages.
Louisa: Somewhere deep inside, I knew that. I had to listen to my intuition. And I’m not a rule follower. I never have been. But don’t think I wasn’t scared, I was. But I was also utterly convinced that the pages we added were essential to our storytelling. Final Message: Trust Your Instincts!!
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Workshops. You may choose from our Close Read and Write Series or our Learn How To Series. This spot can be used through December 2024
For more information on Whale Rock's Workshops, click here: Programs | Whale Rock Writing Workshops (whalerockworkshops.com)
Louisa Jaggar is the creator and coauthor of the Smithsonian's Saving Stuff. Saving Stuff (Fireside 2005) received national attention and was featured in Parade Magazine as a Parade Picks, The Washington Post, Real Simple, Country Living, on NPR's All Things Considered, as well as many other venues.
Shari Becker is a critically acclaimed novelist and picture book author who has been writing and creating content for children and teens for over 25 years. She holds an MA from NYU and kicked off her career developing branded content for Nickelodeon, for Disney-owned properties, and an Emmy Award–winning puppeteer.
Together, they have co-authored Sprouting Wings, illustrated by Floyd Cooper.
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