It’s so fun to have Kate Hannigan here today to discuss her newest picture book, Nellie vs. Elizabeth: Two Daredevil Journalists’ Breakneck Race around the World. Kate, can you tell us about your book?
From my publisher, Calkins Creek: In this real-life adventure, daredevil and groundbreaking journalists Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland race against each other–and the clock–as they circle the globe by ship, train, and foot. Join these two stereotype-shattering reporters as they prove that not only is traveling around the world possible, but that women are just as curious, capable, and courageous as any man.
Nellie Bly was an energetic and eager reporter, but she wasn’t able to think of a good story for her editors. Wishing she was on the other end of the earth, Nellie had an inspiration–she would travel around the world, just like in the fictional adventure book AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS. When a fellow journalist, Elizabeth Bisland, heard about Nellie’s plans, she decided to up the stakes–by beating Nellie in her own race!
This exciting American history story about two pioneering women who paved the way for equality will inspire young readers.
On November 14, 2017 (one hundred and twenty-eight years to the day that Elizabeth and Nellie started their race), you and I learned we’d written very similar picture books about their grand adventure. What was it that drew you to this story?
It was cosmic, no? Haha! I still chuckle about that moment. I come from newspaper journalism, and there’s nothing worse than getting scooped! So I nearly fell out of my chair when I read that you’d already locked up a deal for telling the Nellie-Elizabeth story. But I hope our experience shows other writers that there’s room for lots of books on the shelves that cover similar ground. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the subject of about a dozen recent picture books! So no need to distress!
Absolutely. How could any one book do their story justice? The more the merrier, I say.
I have always wanted to find an angle to tell a Nellie Bly story. She was such a barrier-breaking woman, and since I was drawn to journalism as a girl, she’d been on my radar for years. When I began researching her life, I loved this race with fellow journalist Elizabeth Bisland. It was fun imagining the two of them racing down gangplanks and leaping onto ships, tapestry bag or trunks in tow!
How would you describe Nellie? Elizabeth? Is there one you feel more drawn to? (I adore Nellie, but I relate to Elizabeth.)
You’re on Team Elizabeth! That’s awesome! They’re both so lovely and had so many appealing traits! I definitely identify more with what I saw as Nellie’s slog-it-out style. While Elizabeth seemed the more polished of the two, with her love of poetry and the deeper writing of magazine work, I think Nellie’s background being newspapers made things resonate. I especially identified with her struggle to come up with story ideas, which is something I did all the time on the features desk.
I saw Nellie as someone who maybe jumped first and thought about details second. And that’s a bit more me. When it comes to writing, I tend to think of it as wrestling alligators. And that seems more in sync with Nellie!
I’m curious. Did you grow up with a Nellie book? (I did. Mine was called The Value of Fairness: The Story of Nellie Bly.) When did you learn about Elizabeth? (I had no idea another woman raced against Nellie until I started my research!)
I was more nosy than bookish as a kid! So I didn’t grow up reading any books about Nellie. But I did read the newspaper (over bowls of Cap’N Crunch at breakfast) and my parents’ magazines, and I remember learning about her and thinking she sounded pretty amazing. I decided at around age eight that I would be a journalist (maybe episodes of Mary Tyler Moore helped?), so Nellie Bly was always referenced as a role model. Fast-forward to adulthood. I’m a big fan of Matt Phelan’s books, so I devoured his 2011 Around the World graphic novel about three circumnavigators, including Nellie. And then two years later, Matthew Goodman’s wonderful Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World.
I ADORED Matthew Goodman’s book! It inspired a huge wall chart I used to track where each woman was on what day in her journey. Now I need to find Matt Phelan’s graphic novel.
I felt like the race between these two amazing women needed to be presented to a younger audience. I tend to write for the kid I was.
What do you hope young readers take from Nellie vs. Elizabeth?
I hope young readers take a minute to think about how wide the world used to be, before cell phones and technology made experiences instantaneous. Trains took days to get us from coast to coast, and international travel was challenging and often fraught with storms and seasickness and weeklong delays. Letters were delivered days and even weeks after thoughts were put down on a page. And while the telegraph was revolutionary in connecting us, there were still limits to how much news made its way to the public. Even locally, it took a great deal of effort to get from one American city to another, let alone the other side of the world. So this idea of racing around the world was kind of mind blowing! And for a single individual to make the trek? Even now, that’s pretty exciting. So I hope our books can be used as launching points to discuss how far we’ve come. And what it will be like in the future when we all have our jetpacks.
Thank you so much for joining me today, Kate. Here’s to more kids reading about Nellie and Elizabeth!