Daring to be Different

Julie Cummins is happy to leave the writing of the “Great American Novel” to another author. The former children’s librarian and respected children’s literature specialist is delighted to write books for younger readers.

Most recently, she has been introducing young people to the world of real-life daredevils, explorers and pioneering aviatrixes of yesteryear, some with ties to the Finger Lakes region. In their day, the exploits of these courageous individuals made headlines. Today, however, many had been largely forgotten until Julie’s books brought them back to life.

Jumpers and pilots and barrel-riders, oh my
Real-life daredevils have captivated Julie’s curiosity and imagination. Her enthusiasm for sharing their stories may date back to her first job as children’s librarian at the Charlotte Branch of the Rochester Public Library. She was often asked about Sam Patch, a well-known early 19th century daredevil obsessed with jumping into waterfalls. Although Patch is buried in the tiny cemetery near the library, Julie discovered that there was virtually nothing available for youngsters to read about his exploits.

“I had never heard of him since I wasn’t from the area. But being a good librarian – and storyteller – I checked the files in ‘Local History,’” admits Julie. Sam Patch: Daredevil Jumper (2009) took several years to come to fruition due to a variety of “glitches, mishaps and roadblocks.” Young readers can now learn how Patch survived two leaps into the Niagara River near the base of Niagara Falls, but perished in the Genesee River on his second attempt to jump over Rochester’s 99-foot High Falls in 1829.

Julie’s first biography, Tomboy of the Air: Daredevil Pilot Blanche Stuart Scott (2001), tells of a pioneering female pilot who took great risks. “Blanche Stuart Scott was a different kind of daredevil,” explains Julie. “First of all, she was a woman in an era when women did not do wild and crazy things.” Scott was the first – and only – female taught to fly by the legendary Glenn Curtiss, the innovative motorcycle and bicycle racer and manufacturer who created early flying machines in Hammondsport. Julie first learned of the aviatrix at the Curtiss Museum, where Scott’s name and Rochester origins appear on a plaque of “Early Birds” as one of only two women who flew before 1916.

Scott’s aviation “firsts” begin in 1910 with her first solo flight and public flight by a woman. Before retiring from active flying in 1916, Scott made the first long-distance flight by a woman, and became the first woman stunt flier. A replica of Scott’s 1911 Curtiss biplane hangs in the Greater Rochester International Airport.

“The daredevil angle was serendipitous,” says the author. After finishing Tomboy, she began to wonder about other women daredevils. That led to Women Daredevils: Thrills, Chills and Frills (2008), which included 14 women who not only flew, but drove and rode on an assortment of conveyances for a thrill-seeking public between 1880 and 1929. The book was selected for the “Kids Reading List” portion of Oprah’s Book Club, a fortuitous achievement in the publishing world.

One featured woman is Annie Edson Taylor, who, in 1901, became the first person to go over Niagara Falls inside a wooden barrel and survive. Taylor was 63, 20 years older than she admitted publicly. “She was a widowed schoolteacher who wanted fame and fortune,” explains Julie. “She achieved moderate fame, but no fortune, as she died in a poorhouse. After the stunt, she announced she couldn’t swim and that ‘No one should ever try that again!’”

From Canandaigua to New York and back again
Julie’s love of storytelling began early. “My mother took me to the library to get a library card when I was 5 years old,” recalls the Ohio native, who learned to read at a young age. “A window to the world was opened to me; it was a huge discovery.”

By high school, she knew she wanted to write. “I still have short stories that I wrote in senior English. Who knows, maybe they’ll make a book someday?” muses Julie, who maintains a file full of book ideas she hopes to develop.

After graduating from college in Ohio, she headed east, where she received a master’s degree in library science from Syracuse University. She and her librarian husband Blair Cummins moved to Ontario County when he became the director of the Wood Library in Canandaigua. The couple lived there from 1969 to 1987 before a 17-year “jaunt” to New York City. They returned to Canandaigua in 2004.

In New York City, as coordinator of children’s services for The New York Public Library, Julie had the daunting task of working with 86 branches in the nation’s largest municipal library system. Because the city is the heart of the children’s book industry, Julie came in contact with children’s book editors, opening the door to her literary career. She gained respect through service to state and national library associations, and as a past chair of both the prestigious Newbery and Caldecott Award committees.

During the 1990s, she edited two reference volumes on illustrators of children’s literature. Her first children’s book, Inside-Outside Book of Libraries (1996), followed. It is a lively introduction to 13 different kinds of libraries. Next, Country Kid/City Kid (2002) told the story of two youngsters who live in very different worlds, yet have many things in common.

No horizon is too far
Julie hopes her books inspire her readers to “dare to fulfill their dreams; and [realize] that no horizon is too far.” Everyone she writes about is extensively researched before she brings them to life. Women Explorers: Perils, Pistols, and Petticoats (2012), a companion book to Women Daredevils, features the stories of 10, pre-1900 female explorers who made significant and dangerous explorations and expeditions.

Lucy Cheesman is one of Julie’s personal favorites. “She loved insects,” she explains. “It was okay with her mother to bring them into her home. She wanted to go to veterinarian school, but they did not admit women.” Instead, Cheesman got a job in the insect house at the Zoological Society in London, and subsequently went to the South Seas to study insects. There, Cheesman’s death-defying entrapment in a web spun by huge spiders is the stuff of an Indiana Jones movie.

Julie’s newest picture-book biography, Flying Solo (2013), tells of Ruth Elder (1902-1977), another fascinating pioneer aviatrix. Julie learned about her while doing research on the “Powder Puff Derby” of 1929, a cross-country air race with 20 women pilots participating to prove that women could fly as well as men. Flying Solo relates how, after Elder and others were seen powdering their noses before takeoff, the legendary competition got its name.

Julie enjoyed researching and writing about Elder because of the “great anecdotal material” of her colorful life. Before the Powder Puff Derby, the world was transfixed by Charles Lindberg’s transatlantic flight, and Elder decided to try to fly to Paris. “She said she wanted to buy a Parisian evening gown,” says Julie. However, Elder and her navigator were forced to ditch the plane and were rescued by a passing ship. Elder’s fame did not fade, though – the barnstormer and beauty queen appeared in two Hollywood silent movies.

Are there more Julie Cummins children’s titles ahead? She reveals she has penned a tall tale about a farmer and a heat wave that awaits a publisher. “Timing is everything,” she admits. “It has to be a subject to capture the attention.”

Stay tuned. I dare you.


by Laurel Wemett