Skyward: The Story of Female Pilots in WWII – interview

Written and illustrated by Sally Deng

Published by Flying Eye Books ISBN: 978-1-911171-51-5

Review and interview by Rachel Morris

Skyward begins in the year 1927. In America, Russia and England, three young girls dream of flying, and as the story unfolds we travel along with each of them in parallel as they overcome the obstacles to their shared dream of becoming pilots. There’s excitement and bravery in each thread of the story, so beautifully told, against the historical backdrop of WWII and introduces us to the heroic stories of the real pilots who’ve inspired the story.

I caught up with Los Angeles based illustrator and author, Sally Deng, to find out some more about how Skyward, her first book, was created.

RM: The meat and bones of the book are the inspirational individual stories of the three female pilots. Their stories aren’t commonly told; where did you hear about them?

SD: The three individual pilots are fictional but are based on the real experiences of female WWII pilots. I first learned about the pilots when I was looking through some vintage photos on Pinterest. The women were dressed in aviation gear and standing proudly in front of their planes. Then I came across photos where they were in uniforms. I was kind of in disbelief because I didn’t think women were allowed to be aviators back then, much less professional pilots. Before I knew it, I had accumulated hours worth of research material about these brave ladies.

Now for a ‘chicken or egg’ question! Can you tell us a bit about the process of creating Skyward? Did the story and illustrations grow up together, or was the narrative set out in words before the images?

The story was written first. I had never written anything for children before so it was really challenging. However, prior to pitching the idea of the book to Flying Eye Books, I had actually done a series of paintings and drawings inspired by these pilots. I guess if I was not so obsessed with painting them, I would have never thought of doing an entire book based on them.

Your painterly, organic style of illustration is really elegant and timeless. Would you share some insights into how you go about making your images?

I’m glad you mentioned that my work is “organic”! I generally don’t like doing under drawings before I paint since I find that it tends to make my work feel stiff. While I do draw rough sketches for art directors and editors, I usually like to just “go for it” when I work on the final. I’ve had friends tell me that that method makes them nervous, but it really is the most enjoyable way for me to make art.

Sally Deng process

The book itself is lovely – the Matt finish to the paper lends a very tactile, slightly old-fashioned feel to the book. Perhaps it’s the way the surface mutes the colours a bit. How involved in the design/paper choices did you get?

The paper choices was all made by the lovely people at Flying Eye Books! They have a record of printing absolutely beautiful books so I trusted them completely.

What are you working on at the moment? 

Another children’s book!

Sally’s next book is based on another inspirational, true story. I’m already looking forward to seeing how she interprets the journey of Yusra Mardini, the Syrian refugee who ended up swimming in the Olympics.


26th June 2018
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