Thursday, May 13, 2010

Lessons from Penelope Pilot

Hopefully by now I've gotten the message to you (via one of the many social networking methods I try to keep up with) about the new Girls With Wings book, Penelope Pilot and her First Day as Captain, available now at the GWW Pilot Shop.

My plan to create a line of books featuring the entire crew of Girls With Wings dolls (others forthcoming) has been one of the tenets of the GWW program from day one. I want to develop a series of stories featuring aviation and all associated STEM disciplines in a entertaining yet educational format for the girls combining flying with geography, meteorology, science, etc.

Why do I think it will work? My niece, a voracious reader (she takes after her aunt), had purchased from her school a few volumes about weather fairies. What girl under the age of 10 is not fascinated with fairies (and princesses)? But, what the heck, these books, which appeal to her girly girl side, are also teaching her about weather. You could, after all, buy books about fairies and princesses that teach girls nothing about anything, so as long as that's what they're going for,  I say, yeah, buy the books explaining weather using fairies. It's unlikely you're going to get a girl to willingly pick up a more generic book. It'll seem too much like homework. We just won't tell her that the cutesy stuff is also educating her at the same time.

Well, deciding to write a children's book and getting one into print is two totally separate things. Here's the process as it developed.

Step 1: Write story. Easy enough. I just drew on my days as an airline pilot to come up with a plot. Step 2: Illustrate pages. I'm not sure even how I linked up with Rob the Designer on Twitter, but he mentioned he was looking to get into illustrating children's books and frankly I can't draw. Rob submitted a sample drawing of Penelope that we just loved (shown at right), so it was on to Step 3: Combine Steps 1 and 2.

Sounds simple. But alas, Rob, although an awesome illustrator, is not a pilot. My friend Cindy, a major airline pilot and GWW Role Model, agreed to manage the project and exchanged numerous emails with Rob regarding the technicalities of aviation. For example, at first Rob had drawn a windsock right in the middle of the departure end of the runway with a tailwind. There were two problems with that: you can't have an obstacle blocking the runway, especially since you would have been using the other end of the runway due to the winds.  I even paid a pilot in Rob's area to take him and his kids up for a flight to get a "bird's eye" view of an airport and he did a great job researching airport security and ground support vehicles, etc. Minor things, but we figured since our biggest audience for the book would be folks in aviation trying to encourage their girls to develop an interest, we might want to be accurate. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Cindy and Rob for their hard work ...and their ability to work together so well for so long!

While we were going through finalizing the illustrations (which as you can see are amazingly rich with color), I kept going through the text. It seemed like every time I read my script I found misspellings, grammatical errors and  awkward sentences. Did you know that "Jetway" is a registered trademark? Luckily I stumbled on to this fact so I could change the word to "Jetbridge" to avoid paying royalties.

Several times I took the book into a library and asked the librarians what they thought. One woman in particular was very unimpressed. She said the book had no "tension" (tension in this industry is one thing we DON'T want to focus on!). She also informed me that kids as old as 14 years or so would read a picture book if they liked the story. I decided to go back and expand on the story to make it longer and add more detail.. All along we had one word on each page to explain, like "Turbine: A type of airplane engine, but also Penelope's name for her cat," which the older kids enjoyed. Once I took it into a third grade class and read the main text, while the kids got to hold up each picture and read the definition at the bottom of each page. They loved it!

I also tried to think of the lessons parents try to teach their kids. Penelope has to get up early so she gets to the airport on time. She needs to stay healthy so she can keep her medical certificate. And she needs to act as part of a team, the whole crew concept.

Once the illustrations (note Rob's awesome touches with the details on  each page!) and the text were locked in, my dad stepped in to help find a printer. Although it's gotten easier to publish a book yourself, it is still a whole other world to navigate when you want to print a book (using an established publishing house is really difficult). A big thanks to my dad who spent days, no weeks, going back and forth with printers to make sure our (my) high standards were met. He was the one who insisted we do the standup Penelope Pilot doll in the back, too, which I think is a great touch.

All told, this process took a year!

I got some indication of the effect the Penelope Pilot book could have soon after receiving it when I stayed with my friend Keith and his family. Keith is training to become a pilot and he and his young son have a wonderful time sharing their love of aviation. One day, though, Keith asked his younger daughter if she would be interested in becoming a pilot. Her response, "Flying is for boys," sent him on an internet search  which resulted in his finding Girls With Wings. He immediately signed her up for a membership, writing "She is a very bright 4 1/2 year old and very interested in flying.  I'm currently acquiring my Private license and I look forward to taking her flying with me.  Her brother and I have a Dad/Son bond with flying, and she seems to think she can't do it because she is a girl.  I am signing her up to show her that girls can fly and have fun too... that it's not just a boy pastime. This club will be her first chance of something special she can be a part of that her brother cannot, and I hope she will be more active as she gets older."

I featured his daughter in the next newsletter and a couple of Girls With Wings Role Models, Christa and Amy (shown here), even got in touch with Keith to talk to Madeleine. We've been in touch ever since, and met once during a trip I made to D.C. Keith's son had a ton of questions for me, mostly about helicopters, some of which I could even answer. His daughter was  kind of quiet so I was trying really hard not to pressure her into talking about flying, and as a result, scare her away.

I went to D.C. last weekend to do another Girls With Wings presentation and had the pleasure of staying with Keith's family. His son warmed up to me again right away, asking me how much a missile weighs (for the record, I have no idea). His daughter, not so much. For as sassy as she can be with her parents (she's to the far right in the picture), she's reserved around strangers. The night before I left, though, I presented her with one of the Penelope Pilot books, which she immediately perused cover to cover, then in reverse, and then had me sign it. I asked her if she would like me to read it to her and she said yes. It's a rather long book so we only got halfway through when we were called for dinner.

After dinner she got back out the book and sidled up to me so I offered to finish reading it to her. She curled up next to me on the couch and listened attentively through the rest. Yeah, so? Most kids like being read to, right? Well, I happened to be in the kitchen when she got up the next morning and she went straight for the book on the counter and carried it with her all morning. That is, until Mom let her know they had gotten a book to donate to her class. Then she had to look through the other books to choose the second best one (the one that hadn't been signed by the author, of course) for her school.

I, of course, was beaming, hoping that the Penelope Book might be pivotal in her life - the one thing that convinces her, as her shirt says, "Yes, Girls Can Fly!" But I am a little biased, of course. Dad wrote to let me know, though, that “I was excited to see that Lynda Meeks from Girls With Wings published the Penelope Pilot book.  I have one son and two daughters, and all of them are interested in flying.  While it’s pretty easy to find toys, magazines, and books that appeal to my son, the Penelope Pilot book was something special just for my daughter Madeleine that we can share together.  I really enjoyed seeing the look on her face when she realized Penelope was the Captain in the left seat of her plane!”

And from Madeleine herself, the following interview with Dad (remember, she's a girl of few words):
Dad. Madeleine, did you like the Penelope Pilot book?
Madeleine. Yes.
D.What did you think of the book?
M. Good.
D. What did you like best about the book?
M. The cat.
D. Besides the cat, did you like seeing things like the checklists that Penelope used to get her plane ready to fly?
D. Ummmm, did you like the color of the book?  The pink?
M. Nooooo Dad, it had purple, not pink. (D: I rolled my eyes at this point. Madeleine is obsessed with pink.)
D. Madeleine, did you like how Penelope was the captain of the plane and not the boy?
M. Yes. She flew the plane. The man was her helper.
D. Did the book make you feel like you could fly a plane just like Penelope?
M. Yes. Jets are fast.
D. Did the book make you think that you could fly a plane better than your brother or Dad?
M. Yes. I can fly better than you guys.
D. Does that mean you could outfly your brother?
M. Yes.
D. How about your Dad?
M. Yes. I’d be a better pilot.
I said she's quiet, not lacking in self confidence.

Ok, so it's going to take some time to see the lasting effects of the book. It's one tool that Girls With Wings can use to get girls interested in aviation. All I know is that we can't stop trying. And we can't count on one approach to solve the lopsided numbers of men to women in aviation. The book may work for some, a girly girl airplane hair bow for another. Some of you may be fortunate enough to take the girl in question up for an actual flight, like Av8rdan blogs about in his post, It is Rare Moments Like These in a Pilot's Life That Need to be Cherished Forever,  about taking his granddaughter on her first flight.

And though you might think that older girls would be uninterested in what this old pilot has to say, I was flattered when middle and high school aged girls asked me for my autograph after my presentation in D.C. Sometimes all it takes is talking about what it is we do. Maybe these girls will become pilots, maybe not. I may never know. But I give out little postcard reminders of the Girls With Wings presentation hoping that they will throw it in a drawer and rediscover it when they're packing for college. If the Girls With Wings message (you can do whatever you strive for as long as you're willing to work at it) has stayed with them I hope they will drop me a line. And, Keith, Madeleine can let me know sooner than that.


  1. Anonymous11:12 AM

    Congrats, Lynda! And you did a great job too! The final product looks great, and thanks for sending me a box of samples! My son took a copy with him to school today to show off. =)

  2. Anonymous11:12 AM

    Congrats, Lynda! And you did a great job too! The final product looks great, and thanks for sending me a box of samples! My son took a copy with him to school today to show off. =)