Written by Rachel Walman
This blog post is part of a series on this year’s four finalists for our annual Children’s History Book Prize. Follow along each week as we interview the authors to learn about their awesome books! Read all four books, then starting April 24, vote online for your favorite to help us choose this year’s $10,000 prizewinner. Get your own copy of this week’s book, Ten Days a Madwoman The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original “Girl” Reporter, from the NYHistory Store or check it out from the New York Public Library, Queens Public Library, or Brooklyn Public Library.
How can any author capture the life of a person as accomplished and adventurous as Nellie Bly? Deb Noyes does an amazing job in her new biography of this intrepid investigative reporter, guaranteed to thrill any young history buff interested in journalism’s storied past. Noyes introduces us to Bly through her daring feats going undercover in an insane asylum, then branches out to tell the story of her life before and after that momentous exposé. There are so many chapters to Bly’s life, readers will be amazed. Take a look at what Noyes has to say about her book and then read it for yourself!
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: Your biography of Nellie Bly, Ten Days a Madwoman, begins with her investigation into conditions at a mental asylum on Blackwell’s Island—now Roosevelt Island—in New York City. Why did you choose this one of her many fascinating assignments to focus on?
Deb Noyes: As a biographer I find I’m usually more interested in a subject’s “hungry” years—their origin story, how they arrived at success—than in the success itself. Bly had a tough childhood. She overcame poverty and other challenges and turned disadvantage to her advantage time and again, which inspires me. I wanted to pay that forward by narrating for young readers how she lived by her own rule: “If you want to do it, you can do it. The question is, do you want to do it?”
Bly is best known today for her record-breaking trip around the world, and there are great children’s books out there on that subject (including the graphic novel that first introduced me to Bly, Matt Phelan’s Around the World). “Girdling” the globe and beating the record of Jules Verne’s fictional hero was dramatic and daring in an age before air travel. But between you, me, and the lamppost, the trip was more a grand publicity stunt than the cornerstone of a long career in journalism. The asylum investigation, on the other hand, was Bly’s first big New York story, written when she was young and alone in a teeming city, flat broke, desperate, and about to throw in the towel on reporting. But the eleventh-hour assignment that got her in the door of the New York World also catapulted her career.
The Blackwell’s exposé speaks to her fearless will and resolve. It took guts (and acting chops!) to go undercover in a notorious madhouse. Bly not only pulled it off—fooling police officers, judges, and doctors—her reporting hastened real reform in a desperately broken system. This is the kind of work I hope she’ll be remembered for.
DCHM: Nellie Bly is not as famous today as she was in her lifetime. Why? What should kids today know about her?
DN: It’s interesting how famous she really was. Bly inserted herself into almost every news item and interview she wrote, becoming a character in her own stories. Her trip (or the marketing of it) made her a major international celebrity—one of the first, really—as famous in her time as any pop diva trending on Twitter today. Her travel wardrobe with its checked wool coat and jaunty cap was so popular women copied it for years. Everyone loved the feisty young American “girl reporter” who braved a 21,700-mile journey without a chaperone or even a spare dress.
Most articles in the 1890s didn’t have a “byline” identifying the author. Hers often included her name right in the headline: “Nellie Bly as a Mesmerist,” “Nellie Bly on the Wing,” and so on. She received hundreds of letters a week at the newspaper, including threats and marriage proposals. Music halls rang to the tune of Nellie Bly songs, and companies named cakes and canned goods after her.
DCHM: If Nellie Bly were alive now, what do you think she would be reporting on?
DN: The recent U.S. election and its outcome would have riveted her. Nineteenth-century journalism tended toward the splashy and sensational, so Bly would feel at home in a climate of fake news, “alternative facts,” and presidential tweets. She was a disarming interviewer and would know how to push through noise to the truth. Women journalists in the 1890s were usually expected to write about fashion or home and family life, but if she had her way today, I think she’d investigate social justice topics or allegations of corruption.
DCHM: What kind of research did you do for this book? Were there any primary sources that inspired you?
DN: Bly’s own collected writings, including her books Ten Days in a Mad-house and Around the World in 72 Days, were my main primary sources, and I quoted them liberally to give readers a sense of her voice. I had fun, too, researching how Bly’s contemporaries saw her—novelist Willa Cather thought Bly “obtrusive” and “insane” and called out the female stunt reporter in general for her “painful parading of her personality.” Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives was another vivid source. His words and powerful photos bring to life the world of the poor in 19th-century New York, shedding light on communities and causes that Bly championed.
DCHM: Why should young people read historical nonfiction?
DN: My book is nonfiction written to read like fiction. My goal is to frame history with story. Good (realistic) historical fiction or narrative nonfiction doesn’t alter established facts: it enlivens history with plot and careful character development. It walks and talks like a novel while relating what really happened.
DCHM: What three words best describe Ten Days a Madwoman?
DN: Narrative, journalistic, and (I hope) inspiring.