Michelle Houts, author of Kammie on First: Baseball’s Dottie Kamenshek, shares how her book highlights Kamenshek’s life of integrity alongside her professional achievements. Houts, also the editor of Missing Millie Benson by Julie K. Rubini, reflects on the role nonfiction plays in shaping children’s reading interests and how librarians serve these readers, researchers, and writers. I received a complimentary copy of these two books in the Biographies for Young Readers series published by Ohio University Press before this interview.
1. How did you first learn about Dottie Kamenshek, the famous baseball player loosely based on Dottie Hinson from the popular movie A League of Their Own? What inspired you to write your book for young readers, Kammie on First: Baseball’s Dottie Kamenshek?
I first read about Kammie in a one-page entry in the book Profiles of Ohio Women. As soon as I read about her, I knew she would be a perfect first subject for the new biography series Ohio University Press was planning. She was a pioneer in women’s sports, a humble leader, and an outstanding person, on and off the field.
2. Kammie on First is the first book in a new series, Biographies for Young Readers. What unique challenges have you found when writing this type of nonfiction for children? What makes biographies a unique and valuable resource for children to access in a public library?
After three fiction books, I was so excited to be writing biographical nonfiction! That’s because I can remember selecting from the biographies section of my own local library. I loved those matching books about different historical figures. I wanted to replicate that excitement I felt, but I wanted the books to have an altogether different look and feel. The books I remember had a few line drawings, were text-heavy, and somewhat drab in their appearance. I was challenged to create a narrative arc in this new series and create a book that was factual and interesting all at once.
3. What intrigued you most about the life of Dottie Kamenshek as you learned more about this athlete? What have children found to be most intriguing about her life after reading your book?
Dottie was two things: a stand-out athlete and a humble leader. Sometimes it’s hard to find both those qualities in one person. Most young readers are fascinated by the fact that Dottie and her contemporaries played baseball in skirts, even if that meant sliding injuries were common. The readers are getting a history lesson about life in the 1940s and early 1950s when we begin to discuss the reasons the AAGPBL players wore skirts, had chaperones, and went to beauty school.
4. In the author’s note from Kammie on First, you share a childhood memory about listening to baseball on the radio. How do you believe children’s memories shape their reading interests? What should the role of children’s librarians be in encouraging these interests?
What a privilege and responsibility librarians have when it comes to young readers! To be able to converse with a child, detect what sparks his or her interest, and to then suggest a great book is nothing short of magical. I’m not sure it’s children’s memories as much as their experiences that shape their reading interests. A positive experience with one book can lead a child to quickly choose another in the same genre or on the same topic or by the same author. I recall that as a child, once I’d found mysteries, I had to read every Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden book I could get my hands on.
5. How have public libraries impacted your process of gathering research? What do you believe the role of librarians is in providing accurate information for children and teens?
Since Kammie on First was my first nonfiction title, I started into my research alone and uncertain. It didn’t take long before I found the first research librarian eager to guide me along the path to discovering more about Dottie. Dottie had passed in 2010. She had never married and had no children. She was also an only child, so I would find no siblings or nieces or nephews. With the help of those well-versed in research methods, I was able to find her school yearbook, some early pictures, and eventually, two first cousins. I’m quite certain that libraries provide many children with their first experiences in research – how to look something up and discover more information. It’s a skill they’ll use their entire lives, and they most often learn it from a librarian.
6. Kammie on First features a great variety of photographs to provide a snapshot into the life and times of this era. Are there any particular images from your book that you recommend librarians share with a young audience when highlighting this athlete’s life?
Students always seem to gravitate toward the picture of Lois Florreich being treated for a sliding injury. To me, it speaks to the fact that these women weren’t just out having fun. They were professional athletes, giving it everything they had, and sometimes enduring painful injuries. That’s a photo that tells a great deal about the grit of all the women who played in the AAGPBL. My favorite picture of Dottie is one of her signing an autograph for a young girl outside the locker room. Even though they are both looking down, you can see that Kammie and her young fan are smiling. It was an important moment for both of them, I’m sure.
7. How have public libraries shaped your experience as a reader growing up and as a writer today?
I grew up in Westerville, Ohio, where we had – and still have – a fantastic public library. I can still tell you the exact shelf location of the first book I could ever read alone (I actually believe I had memorized it, but I was convinced I could read!) and the exact shelf that housed the Little House series, which I read through more than once. Going to the library was always a treasured experience as a child. I believe exposure to all kinds of stories at a very young age has really shaped the reader and writer I’ve become today.
8. How can librarians best promote nonfiction books to young readers?
Ah, well, it seems suddenly nonfiction is no longer playing second fiddle to fiction in a lot of situations. I think newer, narrative nonfiction reads more like fiction. I like to tell about how I was so engrossed reading Candace Fleming’s Amelia Lost a few years ago, that a small part of me forgot I knew the ending! As I read, the suspense was real, even though I knew the outcome of Amelia Earhart’s story. That’s what good nonfiction does to a reader. I think that if librarians are promoting great nonfiction right alongside fiction, the stories themselves will grab the reader and send them back for more.
9. What advice would you give to young people interested in a career in writing biographies? How can children’s librarians best support young writers?
To the young writer, I would say, “Be observant. Be inquisitive.” Great stories are all around you, and they don’t all belong to the famous. Your elderly neighbor, your teacher, even a classmate may well have had some amazing experiences worth sharing. Ask if you might tell their story and write it down. To the children’s librarians, I would direct young readers first to a book, but then also to the author or illustrator. Helping children realize that behind every book is a writer and sometimes an artist, and always an editor, just might lead a young person toward a career they will love.
10. The next book in the Biographies for Young Readers series, Missing Millie Benson by Julie K. Rubini, chronicles the life of the author who wrote twenty-three of the first thirty books in the Nancy Drew Mystery series. As you are the series editor, did Nancy Drew’s adventures resonate with you as a child? Why do you think they are relevant to young readers today?
When Julie Rubini approached the publisher with her proposal to write about Millie Benson, I was on board from the beginning. Nancy Drew has withstood the test of time. I’m amazed that young readers still know this fictional character. It’s very interesting that most of the qualities we love about Nancy are qualities Rubini found in Millie: independent, determined, confident, and hard-working. Those qualities, whether they be found in fiction or in real people, will never become irrelevant.
Thank you for explaining your writing process and for sharing your perspective on the role libraries play in serving young readers, writers, and researchers!