Classified: an Interview with Author Traci Sorell

In Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer, Cherokee author Traci Sorell and Métis illustrator Natasha Donovan trace Ross’s journey from being the only girl in a high school math class to becoming a teacher. Ross continued onward to earn an engineering degree, join the top-secret Skunk Works division of Lockheed, and become a mentor for Native Americans and young women interested in engineering. Find out how Ross’s passion for math and the Cherokee values she was raised with shaped her life and work.

Today author Traci Sorell shares her experience writing Classified and why the story of Mary Golda Ross is so important.

What was your inspiration for the book?

As a Cherokee Nation citizen, I knew about Mary Golda Ross. But I also knew that her contributions were not widely known because of the top-secret nature of her work for most of her career. Mary helped put a man on the moon and helped author a planetary travel handbook for NASA. So I wanted to help children learn about her because she’s an important role model, given her background and how her culture shaped her life.

What do you hope readers will learn or discover from reading your book?

I hope readers understand that Mary’s Cherokee culture valued education – from one’s family, community and classrooms. The Cherokee Nation opened the first free compulsory co-educational public school in the United States in 1841 – just two years after arriving in Indian Territory following their forced removal from their eastern homelands. That’s impressive, given they arrived with few supplies and had to reestablish their government. The Cherokee Nation also opened men’s and women’s institutions of higher learning. Mary’s great-great grandfather played an integral part in that. Mary’s mother donated part of her own allotted land for a primary school in Park Hill, OK, just south of Tahlequah, the Capital of the Cherokee Nation. That allowed the Ross children and other Cherokee children in the area to attend school close to home.

I also hope readers will discover that the Cherokee values Mary’s family and community instilled in her guided her throughout her life. Too often, we read books about Cherokee or other Native people and their cultural background is completely left out of the story. I believe that’s because the person sharing the story has little to no knowledge of the culture and therefore doesn’t see what is obvious to those from that community. I want readers to see that Mary is rooted in her Cherokee identity, even as she is working on equations to help people travel in space.

What is the most surprising thing you discovered while researching or writing the book?

In visiting with her cousin, Bruce Ross, he shared that Mary’s papers and work materials were in the Northeastern State University Archives in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. I made an appointment with the Archives staff to view the contents of the numerous boxes. What a treasure trove! I held her slide rule and looked through notebooks filled with mathematical equations she crafted. I thumbed through books she referenced as well as pored over photographs of her and newspaper articles about the work she did. After spending time there I felt much closer to Mary and her work. I also left better equipped to share Mary’s story as well as help the illustrator, Natasha Donovan, craft her part in the art. I took and provided hundreds of photos for her to reference. That visit strengthened the book in ways I did not foresee, but for which I’m forever grateful.

Spread from Classified in which Mary studies difficult equations.

What was the most enjoyable part of making the book?

For this book and really for any others that I’ve written, there are two parts I really enjoy. One is what I learn in the process about writing and about the book’s subject. And Mary is a fascinating woman to study as she experienced so much during her lifetime. The other part I enjoy centers on the people that all work on the book with me – before, during and after publication. I love the team aspect of creating a book and bringing it into the world to share. In April 2019, I toured Carol Hinz, my editor, and Danielle Carnito, my art director, around Park Hill and Tahlequah where Mary grew up and went to college. We had a wonderful day together. That isn’t something that typically happens in making a book, but what a gift that it did for this one.

What was the hardest part of making the book?

The hardest part of the book for me is always figuring out how I’m going to tell the story. I generally know what I want to say, but what will be the best structure to share that with others always challenges me. For this book, Carol shared some nonfiction picture books she loved. I read through them and liked the structure of The Tree Lady by H. Joseph Hopkins and Jill McElmurry. So I modified that book’s set up to tell Mary’s story. I’m happy with how the text flows as a result.

Hear more from Traci in this interview with Booklist‘s Shelf Care podcast!

Teacher Resources

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Praise for Classified

★”A stellar addition to the genre that will launch careers and inspire for generations, it deserves space alongside stories of other world leaders and innovators.”—starred, Kirkus Reviews

“[A] valuable addition to units on Indigenous individuals or women in STEM.”—Booklist

“In this compelling picture book biography, author Traci Sorell and illustrator Natasha Donovan capture the life of a little-known pioneer in STEM, celebrating how she blazed a trail for others behind her.” – A Mighty Girl

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