3 min read

Ryan Ann Hunter is the pseudonym of Elizabeth Macalaster and Pamela Greenwood. Beyond Words recently sat down with them to discuss their latest book, In Disguise!: Undercover with Real Women Spies.

1. How did you begin writing together?

We belonged to a women’s writing group near where we lived in New Jersey, and one day we got to talking about collaborating, and how it might be a fun writing challenge, sort of an exercise. We picked young children’s nonfiction, a genre that neither of us had done alone. We had no expectations, but the collaboration clicked. Later, we tried YA. That worked, too. We are lucky to work easily with each other, channeling what we’ve called Ryan Ann Hunter’s force, her voice, into action.

2. What inspired you to write about female spies?

In Disguise! was born from our interest in unconventional girls. Our first published books were a trio of engineering picture books that encouraged youngsters, both girls and boys, to experience technology at their level. Research on a later book about flight brought us into the daring world of female pilots, and we became intrigued by stories about strong girls and women. One day we saw Elizabeth McIntosh’s adult book, Sisterhood of Spies,(Dell, 1998), and we wanted to tell kids about brave women spies. Our editor at Beyond Words guided us to the middle grade audience, and Ryan Ann Hunter found a new challenge!

3. What is your favorite profile in the book?

I (Elizabeth) can’t say that I’ve got one favorite. Each era offered the spies new dangers, and every spy we researched stood up to the challenge and made a difference. Among my favorites is Aphra Behn, the first spy in the book. She lived in 17th century England, an impossible time for a woman to make a living on her own. But Aphra prevailed, despite overwhelming odds. She was such an inspiration.

I (Pamela) am amazed by all the women in the book, too. But for some reason I developed a special feeling for Noor Inayat Khan. Maybe because she had just begun a career in writing for children, maybe because she grew up in a strongly nonviolent and all-embracing tradition. When she and her brother heard the army marching in to take over Paris in WWII, they knew they couldn’t sit back and watch. Noor stretched way beyond herself, and she suffered so much in the end. The dream both her brother and her mother had the night she died still haunts me. (If you read her story, you’ll see what I mean.)

4. Did you interview any actual spies for this book or primarily do historical research?

We primarily did historical research, because most of the women are historical figures. A few are well known for other reasons: Harriet Tubman; Josephine Baker; Julia Child; Valerie Plame. The women from Mexico and Columbia are still celebrated as local heroes. We had several insightful conversations with historians and curators who knew their subjects well. And we learned a lot from the research of other biographers. Through them, and also through primary resources such as diaries and journals, we got to know the spies.

At the time of our research, three of the spies were living.  Jonna Mendez and Lindsay Moran corresponded with us via email.  In addition, I (Elizabeth) had the great fortune to live only an hour from Maria Gulovich, and I was able to meet and interview her. It was one of the most special moments of my writing career. I was honored to meet a heroine of her stature.

5. What will kids get out of the book?

In Disguise!pulls back the curtain on the lives of brave girls and women who worked in secret for their country’s freedom. Kids will learn what these spies were like as girls their own age, and what led them to stand up for causes they believed in. We hope the stories will inspire girls—and boys—to step up for a cause they believe in, even if it’s hard.


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