|Ellen Klages, photo by Scott R. Kline|
Ellen Klages is the author of the new middle-grade novel for kids, Out of Left Field. Her other books include The Green Glass Sea and White Sands, Red Menace. She lives in San Francisco.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Out of Left Field, and for your main character, Katy?
A: The historical part comes from a baseball web page I did 20 years ago for the Exploratorium museum. I was looking for a different angle, and I wondered if there were any women who played baseball. There were.
Katy is the little sister of the characters in my first two books (The Green Glass Sea and White Sands, Red Menace). Dewey is a scientist and Suze is an artist. I wanted Katy to have other interests, and I thought: What if she was a jock in this intellectual family?
Q: So did you decide to set the novel in 1957-58 because of the timing working out based on when the previous two books were set, or were there other reasons?
A: Once I figured out that Katy was my main character, I had a time frame. Terry Gordon is pregnant at the end of the second book, in 1947, so her daughter would be 10 years old in 1957. I started there.
I soon realized that it's a very significant year in baseball history because the Giants and Dodgers relocate to the West Coast. A little more research, and I discovered that happened around the same as Sputnik and Little Rock, and everything started to fall into place.
Q: Had you done most of the research for this book when you worked on the project for the museum, or did you need to do more?
A: I worked on that website more than 20 years ago, and I couldn't even find any of my (handwritten) notes. So I started almost from scratch. The funny thing was, when I was just starting to gather facts, one of the primary sources that kept popping up was me! I'd Google "women in baseball," and the third or fourth link would be my own "Girls of Summer" pages!
Over the past five years, I've gathered books about baseball history, women's baseball, Little League, Sputnik, and '50s slang. Along with a pile of magazines from the period. Because I live in San Francisco, I was able to drive to Berkeley and go to the historical society and the library there, and I spent days walking around Katy's neighborhood, taking pictures and notes.
The hardest thing for me was figuring out a positive ending, because in 1957, she just wasn't going to get to play Little League. If this book had been written in the '50s, I'm sure Katy would have learned that sewing was just as much fun as baseball, and become a "young lady." Yuck!
It took me almost a year to figure out a way for her to be empowered and still keep the story historically accurate.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the novel, especially about women in baseball?
A: I hope readers realize that women have actually played baseball and that girls who love the game are not weird, that they’re not the only ones.
The bigger message is to stand up for what you believe in— there are lots of ways to fight discrimination.
I’m hoping girls of all persuasions identify with Katy, and know that it's okay to be strong and follow their dreams, whether that's playing sports, solving math problems, making music and art, or writing code for an app. The sky's the limit!
Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to women in baseball?
A: Women have been playing professional baseball for more than 150 years. Why should that no longer be true? I don’t know if I’ll get see it in my lifetime, but who knows?
It’s going to be hard. The comparison to Jackie Robinson is fraught but apt—whoever she is, she's going to have to be 10 times better than any other player picked that year, and have very thick skin, because she will have a lot of opposition.
There's no reason women can't play baseball, but a lot of other things will have to change for girls to even have a shot. Little League pitcher Mo’ne Davis pitched a no-hitter in the LL World Series, but is now playing basketball because there’s no future for a great baseball player who happens to be a girl. Not yet.
High schools and colleges do have girls’ basketball programs, and lots of women have professional careers in the WNBA. I hope some day there will be the same resources and support for girls who love baseball.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I had two books out last year, and two this year, so I’m taking a little break until July. Then I'm going to start work on a memoir. I think. It’s in the tiny beginning stages of an almost-idea right now.
Q: Anything else we should know about Out of Left Field?
A: It’s a baseball book. It's a book for strong, smart girls. And it's historical fiction, the kind of history that didn’t get written down much. I've always been fascinated by the pieces of the past that didn’t make the cut or were forgotten or suppressed. Like women baseball players. Katy's heroes deserve to be as well-known as Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle.
Mostly I want kids to close one of my books and have more questions than answers. I hope I've sparked their interest, got them wondering "what if?" and left them with the urge to go exploring on their own, wherever their curiosity leads them.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb