Writing So That Barriers Might Fall: Ellen Klages Discusses Out of Left Field
It was in 2006 that I read the book Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages. Long before STEM was a common term and there was a national push for girls to embrace math and science, Klages told the story of two friends living in the very heart of the Manhattan Project. Two years later (after GGS had won a Scott O’Dell Award for historical fiction) it was followed up with White Sands, Red Menace with the same girls. A decade went by. This year, I’m so pleased to see that the third book in the series (if, indeed, a series is what it is) is out. But where its predecessors focused on the Cold War and science girls, Out of Left Field has a whole different take on feminism. One that involves . . . . wait for it . . . sports!!
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Ms. Klages to talk about the book, why it’s actually more STEM related than her previous books, the barriers that still need to be broken when it comes to women and baseball, and whether or not Ms. Klages is, in fact, a “pantser”.
Betsy Bird: I think one of the things I like the most about OUT OF LEFT FIELD was the connection to your previous books THE GREEN GLASS SEA and WHITE SANDS, RED MENACE. Did you always envision this as a series or did things just fall out that way naturally?
Ellen Klages: More fall-out than planning. I am completely a “pantser,” not an outliner. The Green Glass Sea started out as a robot/alien abduction short story. (Yeah, really.) It gradually morphed into a much longer tale (and lost the robots and aliens along the way), turned into a novel, and then two. When I finished White Sands, Red Menace, it seemed like a good place to stop — the story had wrapped up with expectations of a happy ending for Dewey and Suze, and there weren’t any events from the early 1950s that were sparking my curiosity. But I had also left it open-ended enough that I could come back if inspiration struck.
Ten years later — in real time as well as fictional time — I had an inkling of an idea for a story set in 1957. Unfortunately by then my main characters were adults. But they did have a little sister, who would be ten. That’s a great age. And she’d been raised by three of the most interesting women I know. Hmm. Things began to fall into place, and became Out of Left Field.
BB: When GREEN GLASS SEA was published it was before the huge push we’ve seen to get girls into the science and STEM fields. It was also before the word “feminist” came back into the public lexicon and was applied to countless biographies and anthologies. In this way, the book was clearly ahead of its time. OUT OF LEFT FIELD follows in its proverbial footsteps less as a STEM title and more as a work of feminism in sports. Why the shift?
EK: I don’t think it is a shift. While it’s true that the first two books had distinctly scientific settings and background events — the Manhattan Project, the beginning of the U.S. space program — and the third has a baseball-oriented focus (although with rockets and satellites in Current Events), for me, Out of Left Field is actually the most STEM-oriented of my books.
Why? Because the STEM skills that are emphasized at the elementary-school level are the ones Katy learns through her adventures: problem-solving; creative and critical thinking; collecting data, finding patterns, and creating logical arguments; learning to listen and communicate and ask good questions. As Terry Gordon says, “Good research skills are a secret weapon that will come in handy down the road.”
I love research. It’s like a treasure hunt, a scavenger hunt, where I follow my curiosity down twisting, branching paths that will take me places I didn’t know I wanted to go. It’s fun, and it’s my favorite part of the writing process.
BB: One of the things I love about the book is its clear cut focus on female baseball players throughout history. Beyond A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN I doubt many people my age have encountered this story, and it’s almost impossible to find information in children’s books about it. Was there ever a point at which you thought to make a Nonfiction book on the subject, or was it always going to be fictional? Would you have any interest in writing something Nonfiction-based as well?
EK: Out of Left Field started out as non-fiction. Twenty years ago, when I worked at the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco, I was part of a team creating a website on The Science of Baseball. (http://www.exploratorium.edu/baseball/features/girls-of-the-summer.html)
Like Katy, I did a lot of research, spent hours in the library, found old photos in archives, conducted interviews, and read the handful of books on women in baseball that had been published (some of which I reference in my Author’s Notes in the back of Out of Left Field). I was so grateful to the writers who had gone before me, who had done the work of digging through primary sources like small-town newspapers, baseball programs, and other ephemera.
But those books were published in the 1980s and ’90s. I had access to them, but Katy wouldn’t. One of my biggest challenges was to find a way that she could reasonably find out about any of these women. I spent four days in the big downtown library wading through volumes of the Readers Guide, and when I found the article about Jackie Mitchell, I almost let out a whoop of my own.
It is still not easy for kids to find detailed information about the history of women in baseball, even with Google and modern access. There are at least a dozen non-fiction books written for children, but each of them concentrates on a single player: Jackie Mitchell, Alta Weiss, Toni Stone. Most of them are picture books, and are quite short, because even though these were remarkable women, and some played for decades, they were not allowed to achieve the kind of fame that would need a longer biography.
Women have been playing professional baseball for more than 140 years, but the scope of that history is still largely unknown. I think that Out of Left Field may be one of the few books to present that bigger picture to middle-grade readers, as well as being a gateway book for kids who like to play sports, but might be reluctant readers.
And while I love research, I also love playing with my imagination. For me, fiction is the best of both worlds.
BB: Your book does an excellent job at tapping into that universal feeling to which all children can relate: injustice. Everything that happens in this story hinges on something not being fair. What cuts deep is how unfair the situation remains to this day. Have things improved since 1957 for girls who want to play baseball? Can they ever hope to play in the big leagues?
EK: Yes and no. Girls have been allowed to play Little League for more than forty years now, but the vast majority of them play softball, not baseball. In many communities, there are opportunities for older girls and women to play baseball, but in many, many others, there are no girls’ teams (or mixed teams) at the middle school, high school, and college levels. Little League is the end of the road. Sure, there are softball teams, but softball is a very different game, and it’s really not “girls’ baseball.” Separate but equal just doesn’t cut it.
Knowing the history, knowing that it has never been solely a boys’ game, a man’s game, is important. It is not true that girls can’t play baseball — they have. Players like Toni Stone and Sophie Kurys ought to have gotten the opportunity to at least try out for the major leagues instead of getting the door slammed in their faces, over and over.
Will a woman break that barrier and play in the majors some day? I hope so. I think she is out there. Maybe she’s ten, and is reading Out of Left Field, and is inspired to keep playing, to keep fighting for her place on the “boys'” team. But it will be an uphill battle. Until boys and girls are taught the same skills, rules, strategies — starting in elementary school and going all the way through college — girls will always be at a disadvantage on the baseball diamond.
I was certainly thinking a lot about injustice and civil rights when I was writing the book, but those aspects feel even more topical now. For me, historical fiction is about opening a dialogue between the past and the present. The current events of 2018 are just as much about standing up for what you believe, fighting for what’s right, getting involved, resisting — and persisting — as they were in 1957. I hope today’s fifth graders will be able to relate.
I’ve written a whole essay on the importance of historical fiction, which you can read here.
BB: Were you a huge baseball fan when you started this project? Are you now?
EK: I’ve been a baseball fan since 1988, when I was living in a mountainous rural area and writing my first book (non-fiction). The libraries and archives and other sources I needed for my research were an hour or two away, so I was in my car a lot. The only radio station that came in clearly was a right-wing AM talk station. Not my cup of tea. I’d listened to all my cassette tapes so often they were wearing out. One day, turning the dial, hoping for anything, I found a baseball game.
Not my cup of tea, either, but it was better than Rush Limbaugh. And it was the bottom of the eighth inning, two men on, two out, so I decided to listen until I found out what happened. I was on the edge of my seat, and the lightbulb went on. There was a narrative, a story unfolding, every inning, every game. I got hooked.
I started scheduling my library trips around the baseball schedule that summer. The Giants or the As? Day game or night game? East coast, west coast, somewhere in between? I’d time my trip so that I got in the car around the third inning, arriving at my destination just as the game was ending,
That was the year the As went to the World Series, so it was a great introductory season. I moved back to Oakland, went to As games. I moved to Cleveland, became an Indians fan. Now I live in San Francisco, and root for the Giants. And I shop for groceries at the Safeway on the corner of 16th and Bryant, where Seals Stadium used to be, and try to imagine what it would be like to go back in time and watch them play.
BB: The unholy worst of all possible questions, but I have to ask it: Will there be any more books in this series? Related, what are you working on now? Or can you say?
EK: I don’t know. If readers fall in love with Katy (and Jules), then the girls may have more adventures. I have a few inklings on what those might be. I’ve also contemplated an adult book about Dewey and Suze and who they become. Both of those are in the “wisps of ideas” category.
In the meantime, I’m trying to write a memoir about my sister, Sally, who had Down Syndrome. She was funny and snarky and loving and tender and infuriating, sometimes all at the same time. I’ve been telling stories about her my whole life. She died two years ago, and I’m hoping to keep her memory alive by writing the best of them down. It’s an emotional journey ever time I open my notebook — some days I smile, some days I cry. So we’ll see.
Many thanks to Ellen Klages and Sharyn November for the interview. And yes indeed, it’s a great book to boot.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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