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Shelf Care Interview: Traci Sorell

Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks to book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by Lerner.

In this episode of the Shelf Care Interview, Julia Smith talks with author Traci Sorell about her picture book biography, Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer, which publishes this March under Lerner’s Millbrook Press imprint.

You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

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JULIA SMITH: Thank you for joining me, Traci.

TRACI SORELL: Thank you, Julia, for having me. I’m looking forward to our conversation.

Can we get started by hearing something about your book?

Sure! Classified shares the story of Mary Golda Ross, as you mentioned, who is a Cherokee woman. She was an aerospace engineer. She’s also one of the hidden figures who helped put a man on the moon. She worked a lot on interplanetary space travel to Mars and Venus. You think about when this is happening, right? I mean, we’re coming out of WWII; we’re in the space race with the Soviet Union. So, she’s doing this highly classified, secret work, which is why people haven’t heard of her.

What I had seen about her previously was little one-page snippets in anthologies about women engineers or women in STEM, hidden figures, but nothing really talking about her and who she was and her background. What I share in the story are four of her core values—although there are many—Cherokee values that really influence who she was and who she became and how she shared her gifts with the world. Because that’s not what’s often shared about her.

I mean, people really downplay it, and I’m like, she comes from an environment where education is prized for all. And that’s not something that was typical in the broader, non-Native U.S. during that time period. She was born in 1908. She came from a long line of people who believe that education is for everyone. And so her math-loving self was very much encouraged to pursue education and to bring those gifts forward.

This book is really about centering that background and how she carries it forward. But we don’t know a lot about her career because most of the stuff she worked on is still classified. But we do know the lasting impact she’s had in encouraging women from all backgrounds and Native Americans to enter STEM fields. I’m just delighted to have this book to share with young readers.

That’s amazing! How did you start to then dig into your research on her because so much was still classified? I’m curious about where you found information.

Well, thankfully, there are things online. There were articles. So I started just doing a background survey of her involvement in the Society of Women Engineers and her involvement in working for Lockheed as their first female engineer and the first Native American female engineer in the nation. There had been some press and articles about that when she passed away in 2008, just a few months shy of her hundredth birthday. There’d been a Google Doodle in 2019, and the U.S. Mint created a Native Americans in the U.S. space program coin series, which included her. It’s got a picture of her working on equations, and then there’s an astronaut in a space suit, and that’s John Harrington, who’s Chickasaw.

So there were some things in place already, but Mary Golda Ross and I share Cherokee Nation citizenship, so I reached out to her family. She still has a first cousin who is living. Ross was 37 when he was born, and he’s an elder now himself. He pointed me to her papers and all of her personal effects from her work that were not classified. They are held nearby at the Northeastern State University campus in Tahlequah, which is the capital of the Cherokee Nation, and where she had done her undergraduate degree.

I went over there and they pulled out, I don’t know, it was between 15 and 27 boxes. Books that were on her desk, her slide rule—I’m getting to handle all these things. It was amazing to read through notebooks of her equations, which, of course, I could not understand, not having a strong math background at all, but it was incredible just to see her beautiful handwriting. The collection also had all of her employee records, promotions, etc., so I had dates.

I mean, the time line in the back is so detailed because I had all of these dates for when she’d gotten her degrees and all of these things. It really helped me to ensure that I have a story that follows along and people could easily access; but all of those nitty-gritty details that people love in the back matter, I was able to supply those, too, from Mary herself. And what a gift, what a gift.

I also wanted to mention how my editor, Carol Hinz, at Millbrook, and Danielle Carnito, the art director, were in Oklahoma for other books that were coming out from Lerner: Chris Barton’s book on the Oklahoma City bombing, and Carole Boston Weatherford and Floyd Cooper’s forthcoming Unspeakable. They had come down, and I was able to take them over to Tahlequah, show them where Mary grew up, the school that she went to as a child—her mother had donated some of her family land to put a small school house there—and where Mary is buried.

We went to the campus, which was the seminary before it was the university. So it was another wonderful thing for them to get to see the area. We took all these pictures, which then we could share with the illustrator. And, of course, I had photographed so many things that were in the boxes to share with her as well. Bookmaking is a team sport and that definitely was how it worked with Classified as well.

I was just going to mention Natasha Donovan’s illustrations for this book!

So beautiful. When I first saw the sketches, I was like, “Oh, man. When this is in color, I know I’m just going to fall over.” And, of course, when I later got the PDF with the color—and every time I see her work—I was just in awe. It’s so incredibly beautiful. Her linework is just tremendous. Up to and including this point, I feel like I have hit the lottery every time when I have worked with an illustrator. I mean, what they bring to my words, it takes it to a whole other level. That is absolutely the case with Natasha’s artwork in this book. I absolutely love it.

What would you say inspires your writing?

Oh, so many things, but I think the principal thing is I want to make the invisible visible. When I was growing up, there wasn’t the variety of books that young people now have access to on all different fronts: fiction and nonfiction for all different age groups and in a variety of formats. So I did not see Native people in books. What you saw were really caricatures and stereotypes, if they were included at all. They were never flushed out as real characters with real lives, real emotions, and you almost never saw them in nonfiction. If you did, they were very ancient types of stories, but not written from the view of people who actually know about these folks, their stories, what their contributions were. So that’s really what I center in my work: how do I contribute? And I’m just one small pebble going into the pond of many people across Indian country working—whether it’s trade publications, whether it’s TV, film, or any types of the arts—to share our stories and help the larger community, not just our young people, though I certainly center Cherokee children in my writing.

I’m a mother of a Cherokee child, first and foremost, but I also am looking at what other Native children are represented in this story. And then beyond that, what are their peers going to learn from reading this story? Again, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, I approach both equally: I want to ensure cultural accuracy and be culturally respectful about information that’s shared, because that has not happened in the past. And unfortunately, in books that are still published today, that continues.

I don’t want to contribute to that. I want to give young people the opportunity to read wonderful literature. So one of the things I feel is that we’re at this great time when I can access what everyone else is writing and read those things. My son and I have great conversations about the books that are available now. I tell him all the time, “I’m so jealous of you. My fifth-grade self would have loved to have been in your shoes.” Because it just wasn’t available. It wasn’t there.

One of the things that you mentioned briefly but really jumped out at me when I was reading, is how you integrate the Cherokee values, or some of them, into this biography. I can’t help but feel that would be absent had someone outside of the culture been writing this. They might have listed a few things, but the way you weave it into all the different parts of her life I think is really amazing.

I went to a talk some years ago now, probably about five years ago or so, and an academic, who had written a scholarly work on Will Rogers, was discussing how all these people write books about Will Rogers, but they don’t center him in his Cherokee identity. This is very much an afterthought, if it’s ever mentioned at all. Yet he was born in the Cherokee Nation. From the time when he lived in Oklahoma, it was a Cherokee nation. It was not the state of Oklahoma. Then he moved on and worked and lived in other places: Argentina, South Africa, New York, California, et cetera.

His father had been on the tribal council of the Cherokee Nation. And I thought, but that’s the case with all of our folks who end up being written about. Nothing is centering the values, the community, and what has shaped them. So, as I read what Mary Gold Ross had done and how she’s contributed to things, it was so clear to me. She is living out what her family has done.

Her great-great-grandfather, John Ross, had been the chief of the Cherokee Nation prior to removal. He obviously came with our ancestors on the forced removal. He and the leadership at the time were the ones that established the schools here, which was not easy to do. You arrive, you have nothing but what you can put into a wagon and bring with you. And yet, we have the Cherokee male seminary, we had Cherokee female seminary. The female seminary is what you see as part of Northeastern State University.

When you open up the book, where there’s a note on Cherokee values and a quote from Mary Golda Ross, you see the female seminary. It’s one of the first views that you have on the campus, that historic building where Mary was taking classes. So, I do agree with your point that others would likely not have seen that or brought it up because it’s not how they’ve viewed her. They’re thinking about her accomplishments but not necessarily why she was so humble about what she did. I mean, it wasn’t like she wasn’t sharing things just because they were classified. She was receiving awards, she was receiving a lot of recognition. I certainly saw that played out as I went through her records and the materials she had sent over to Northeastern State University.

She knew that humility is one of our values. It’s like it’s not her working in a silo—she’s with a team of people. And just as an entire family contributes to its own wellbeing and sustenance, and that then extends to the larger community and everybody working in partnership, she’s simply doing the same thing. She’s just living out those values. So I wanted to shine a light on that, that so many people who are achieving these things are bringing their full identities and their full selves into that experience even if you’re not aware of it.

I believe her story is a very important one for young people to have, with its message to persevere even if you’re going into a field where you have no family or friends or anyone else you know. Bring your full self. As difficult as that may seem, others have done that before you.

Can you talk a little bit about the role of libraries in your life?

Well, I’ll start with the present. Libraries are critical to my life. I could not write if I did not have access to libraries because I need to do research, as I mentioned, on a variety of topics, but I also need to keep up with what is being published right now. What is new out on the market? And I want to write across all age groups. I want to write across a variety of formats. And the library is the only place that I’m going to get all of those things.

I mean, I don’t have a personal budget that allows me to buy all of those new titles. So I can request for my library to buy what they may not yet have acquired. Then I have access to that book. So this year, we had to unenroll my son from the school district because they had a mask-recommended policy, which was not going to work for our family. So, the library has been even more critical because now I’m supplying him with additional reading material from there. I could not function without our public library.

But as a child and a young teen, the library, both at school and the public library—especially the public library in the summer and during breaks—that is where I could lose myself in fiction and nonfiction, in worlds that were completely the opposite of the one I was living in, whether I was out in the country or in the town. I was in smaller rural areas until my teen years. Those books allowed me to go, “Okay. There are people having all kinds of experiences that I have no clue about.” I remember when I was reading Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and trying to envision this child, Peter, going into an elevator and up to an apartment. And this was where he lived—in this, in essence to me, large box. I’m like, “He has no yard? He has no animals outside? How is he living in this world?” It just made no sense.

Because I was on a horse before I could walk. So it’s a very different reality. That’s the beauty of our libraries. They open up all of those introductions to new worlds. But what I hope my work does, is that it allows those who are in those worlds to see themselves in a way in which they haven’t been represented previously.

When you’re not writing, and I know you’re reading a lot within your interests and as research, but what are you reading for fun?

I enjoy reading board books and picture books, early readers, chapter books, novels in verse—I enjoy reading all of those things, plus anthologies of poetry and short stories. So, I feel like I am like this kid again who gets to enjoy all these wonderful books that come out. And then I sometimes will venture into things for adults, but they tend to be so wordy, and I’m like, “Who’s your editor?” Again, I realize it’s a different audience. But one book that I have been reading and enjoying recently is Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, who’s Potawatomi. And that has been a wonderful read during the pandemic. I have to take my time with it because I really want to sit with all the wisdom she’s sharing about plants and the environment and our relationships with water, with our fellow animals, all of these things. I think there’s so much wisdom and richness there to take in that I’m not wanting to rush it. So I’m enjoying that.

Great! That’s my last question for you. But since you happen to have your book handy, I was wondering if you could read just a small portion for our listeners?

Absolutely. I’ll start off with Mary’s quote because that’s right inside the beginning of the book. It says, “Do the best you can and search out available knowledge and build on it. I started with a firm foundation in mathematics and qualities that came down to me from my Indian heritage.” And Mary said that in her last interview, just a few weeks before she passed in April 2008, and that interview was actually done with The Cherokee Phoenix, our independent tribal newspaper.

And as I read that quote, I thought, yes. Like I say, what I have in the book is not something I just made up. She talks about this because it is what she knew. This was her heritage. These are the values she was raised with as well as her love of math, which then led her to this new field that wasn’t even created yet, aerospace engineering.

But the opening spread is her working at a desk. And again, Natasha’s art is just going to feed you so much as you read through the book. But it begins, “Young Mary Golda Ross pushed her pencil across the page. Puzzling out math equations made her happy. Teenage girls in the 1920s weren’t expected to enjoy or excel in math or science, but Mary did, and she blazed a trail for others.” And then the story goes on from there, talking about her journey.

I look forward to sharing this book with readers on March 2 and hopefully encouraging a new generation of young people to see that they can do whatever it is that they set their mind to. And I actually do dedicate the book to future engineers, mathematicians, and scientists saying, “Do the best you can,” as Mary would say, “because I’m rooting for you.”

This Shelf Care Interview was sponsored by Lerner, publisher of Traci Sorell’s Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer, available March 2021. Happy reading!

About the Author:

Julia Smith is a senior editor for Books for Youth at Booklist. She is a graduate of the MLIS program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is also an aspiring aerialist. Follow her on Twitter at @JuliaKate32.

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