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Originally published Friday, May 21, 2010 at 3:07 PM

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Kids' books: Talking with 'Flygirl' author Sherri L. Smith

The new young-adult book "Flygirl" details a young African-American woman's experiences as a pilot with the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) during World War II. The book was chosen as one of the "2010 Best Books for Young Adults" by the American Library Association.

Scripps Howard News Service

Getting a book published isn't a new experience for Sherri L. Smith. But "Flygirl" (Putnam, $16.99), Smith's latest book for teens, has turned out to be a totally different publishing adventure for the 39-year-old author.

For one thing, "Flygirl" is historical fiction, not a contemporary novel, like Smith's three previous young-adult books.

More importantly, however, "Flygirl" has significantly raised Smith's literary profile. The book, which details a young African-American woman's experiences as a pilot with the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) during World War II, has won rave reviews and was chosen as one of the "2010 Best Books for Young Adults"by the American Library Association.

"This is the one that's getting all of the attention,"Smith said in a recent telephone interview from her Los Angeles home. "It's really pretty exciting."

Serendipity also has played a role in putting a spotlight on "Flygirl." This past March, just months after "Flygirl"was published, surviving WASP members were finally awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for their service as the first women to fly U.S. military planes.

The now-elderly WASP members, whose role in World War II was forgotten for many years, suddenly found themselves in the national media spotlight.

"At the time I was writing the book, it was hard to find information about the WASP," said Smith.

Smith got the idea for doing a book on the WASP program when she heard a radio story about it. Because most male pilots were fighting overseas in World War II, the military decided to create the WASP program as a domestic air corps to do things like ferry planes from one U.S. base to another.

The women pilots were civilian employees who were paid less than men, and even had to pay their own way to the training facility in Sweetwater, Texas. Still, there was an intense interest in the program: thousands of women applied, but only 1,800 were accepted and just over 1,000 made it through the rigorous training program.

As she did her research for "Flygirl," Smith discovered that the racism of the times meant that African-American women were excluded from the WASP program. But, as a novelist, she wondered what would have happened if a very light-skinned African-American woman successfully "passed" as white and became a member of the WASP.

That idea "gave me an entry into this world of the WASP. I hadn't found another way until then," Smith said.

Smith's protagonist, Ida Mae Jones, is obsessed by flying. Her father was a pilot and he taught her basic piloting skills on their crop-dusting plane. After he died, Ida Mae became even more determined to become a pilot.


So, when Ida Mae hears about the WASP program, she knows she has to sign up — even over the objections of her mother, who already is having trouble dealing with the fact that Ida Mae's older brother is fighting overseas.

While the training program is hard enough, Ida Mae's most difficult moments come when she tries to balance the independence she has because others think she is white with her love for her family. Smith carefully highlights this uneasy existence, adding further suspense to a story already filled with historical drama.

"My themes tend to center on family, the meaning of family and coming-of-age stories," Smith said. "And I try to have some adventure in there as well."

Smith says she's been writing "since I was a little kid." But she majored in film at New York University because she particularly loved the idea of "visual storytelling."

Several years after graduating from college, Smith landed a job at Disney Studios, doing TV animation for "direct to video" films.

"The place was a story factory," Smith recalls. "My job was to sit down and figure out what happens next to a character. I really learned how to craft a story."

Eventually, Smith decided to try writing a novel for teens. Titled "Lucy the Giant," the book sold in two months to a publisher. Smith followed up with two other contemporary teen novels, "Sparrow" and "Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet."

But Smith, who always thought she'd end up writing science fiction, found herself "frustrated to see contemporary young-adult novels coming out of my keyboard." As a result, writing a historical novel like "Flygirl" was something of a relief.

Smith now is finally working on a futuristic novel, this one set in her mother's hometown of New Orleans.

"I'm crossing my fingers that it will be a trilogy," she added.

Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at

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