Josie O’Malley, Akiko Nakano, and Mae Crumpler are young American girls wanting to help during World War Two, just like the older members of their family. After all three are rejected from being code breakers because they are girls, they find themselves in a secret program of superheroes! With a unique mix of prose storytelling with action bursts of graphic novel pages, Cape: The League of Secret Heroes by Kate Hannigan is a new favorite middle-grade book.
Just like the three heroines, this book is more than what you might first imagine. Yes, it is a fun adventure with powers and capes, but Hannigan brings depth to her characters dealing with prejudice and bullying at home to worrying about loved ones at war. And she goes into the history of that era with both the origins of female comic book heroes and the real-life female heroes that programmed the first computer ever built, a computer that would help the Allied forces across the oceans win the war. Plus, a mystery and several puzzles to solve along the way. Patrick Spaziante is the talented illustrator of Cape’s graphic pages.
Although women heroes, both fiction and non-fiction, are often overlooked in history, Harrigan brings them to the forefront in Cape, along with three new young heroes to inspire a new generation. Kate is no stranger to bringing history to life, with previous award-winning books both fiction and non-fiction. I was thrilled to interview Kate Hannigan about this latest book; her passion in these answers made me quite emotional. We need more writers like this. Enjoy!
GeekMom Rebecca Angel:
In the Author’s Notes, you say that the question, “Who came before Wonder Woman?” was the impetus for Cape. What was the comic research like?
The research was a wind-in-the-hair thrill! I’ve always loved Wonder Woman, so it was interesting to learn about her. Within months of her debut in 1941, Wonder Woman had her very own comic book which, at its peak, was selling around 2.5 million copies each month, according to superheroine expert Trina Robbins in The Great Women Superheroes. With blockbuster numbers like that, I wondered whether she was the only woman in what has always seemed to be a tights-wearing man’s world. I’m happy to report that she wasn’t alone—that as with so much of recorded history, women were there too, but their stories were dismissed or forgotten.
Once I realized there were plenty of women on the early superhero scene, I had a ridiculously good time reading about them, starting with the bizarre Fantomah, who is considered the first female superhero. She debuted in February 1940 in Jungle Comics issue No. 2. Fantomah could fly, had an endless list of impressive powers, and, when provoked, transformed her appearance into an angry blue skull. Other smart, fascinating, and powerful originals that appealed to me included the Woman in Red (considered the first masked heroine), Amazona, Black Cat (not Marvel’s version, which came in 1979), the Magician From Mars, Lady Luck, Madame Strange, Flame Girl, and Miss Fury. Research into these early superheroines inspired the female superheroes I created for Cape.
ENIAC was the first electronic computer, designed by two men and programmed by six women during WW2. How did you come across this part of history? Why did you include it in Cape?
I was fascinated by the idea that Wonder Woman arrived at the same time as the bombing of Pearl Harbor: December 1941. So from the word go, we’ve got superheroes entangled with historical events. As a history geek, I was enthralled! So I dove into researching both comic book history and WW2 history. And immediately I wanted to merge the spirit of powerful female caped figures with the remarkable real-life women who stepped forward to fight evil and cruelty in the world during wartime. It seemed a natural fit.
I specifically researched ENIAC because I’d heard about it growing up: my grandfather moonlighted on ENIAC in Philadelphia. My mom recalls him being missing from the dinner table when she was a kid, learning only later that it was because Granddad was working on the vacuum tubes that were part of the enormous beast that became the first modern electronic computer, the one to which all our current computers can trace their DNA. Personal stories often drive creative writing projects, and I guess I’m guilty here too!
As I learned about the six ENIAC programmers, I felt a little outraged on their behalf. As I learned from Kathy Kleiman’s incredible research, the ENIAC women were never given the credit they deserved for being the world’s first programmers. And I learned that one of them—Kay McNulty—came from the same county in Ireland as my grandparents. Her father and my grandparents could have taken the same boat from County Donegal to Philadelphia when they emigrated to America in the 1920s! And I loved the idea that this barrier-breaking woman grew up in an Irish-speaking household and had to learn English here as a child. Hers is a fascinating immigration story and a great example of living out the American Dream.
I decided to spotlight Kay McNulty and another ENIAC programmer, the charismatic Jean Jennings, as active characters in the book in order to introduce young readers to the real-life women who were at the front line of the computer age. Simply put: women have been a crucial part of tech since the very beginning. The ENIAC Six deserve their time in the spotlight. Hopefully, young readers meet them here and then dive into their own research.
What was your process in coming up with the three main characters: Josie, Akiko, and Mae? Their powers? Super names? Outfits?
Let’s start with the outfits! They’re for kicking some serious backside, without worrying about wardrobe malfunctions. Fantomah was a great early example of female superhero power, but she was flying around in a nightie. The same goes for so many other female caped heroes: who can fight bad guys in a skimpy skirt or bosom-bearing blouse?
Because there were already so many red-white-and-blue costumes during the war, I decided to go with the green-purple-orange palette. And from this, I landed on names: the Emerald Shield, the Violet Vortex, and the Orange Inferno. I taped a poster board to my wall near my desk and wrote each member’s traits, backstory, and quirks up there, and I used The Powerpuff Girls as inspiration for how to make them distinct individuals as well as a cohesive group. The Infinity Trinity just sort of came to me in sleep one night, though I have a lot of fun in the book with people constantly calling the trio the wrong name.
As to their powers, I tried to match what I saw as personality traits with superhero abilities. Josie is the sturdy, steady center, so super strength seemed to fit her. Akiko is passionate, so I felt like fire was a natural for her. And Mae is a deep thinker, so reading minds matched her personality. The other superpowers they possess grew out of what I personally wished for! There are days I really want to teleport and shape-shift and conjure cool gadgets from my purse. Unfortunately, the only superpower I seem to possess is the ability to parallel park.
America’s past is often glamorized in children’s books, focusing solely on the heroics of WW2. In Cape, you certainly highlight the heroes, but do not shy away from shameful issues of America’s past like the Japanese internment camps or the severe racial prejudice faced by many Americans. Why was it important for you to include them? How do you handle these subjects for children?
One of the appealing things about writing historical fiction for kids is that you can slip in spinach and other vitamins amid the ice cream and treats. Superheroes might be a fun subject that attracts young readers to these books, but as they read, my hope is that they think about tougher issues at play. When we think about why we read books in the first place, I believe it’s to understand one another. But we also read to explore basic questions about ourselves. To consider basic, universal traits about ourselves and each other truths about life: Am I honest, brave, compassionate? So I hope young readers build empathy for characters who face challenging circumstances and are different from themselves. I hope they come to realize how unfair society can be to certain populations, and that it’s up to each one of us to recognize that and fix it.
Maybe a young reader will see the world from Akiko’s perspective and recognize the injustice done to her and her family as Japanese Americans who were rounded up and imprisoned in the desert. And then, as that reader grows up, maybe they’ll recognize injustice when it unfortunately surfaces again. The same goes for Mae’s story and the treatment of black veterans. In WW2, they risked their lives fighting for freedom in Europe and the Pacific, while back home their own freedom was limited—they couldn’t sit down at the same ice cream counter or swim in the same pool or live on the same block as white veterans. Young readers recognize injustice when they see it, just as clearly as adult readers.
Why did you decide to blend a traditional prose book format with interspersed graphic comic elements in Cape? How did you decide what parts of the book were for each storytelling tradition?
It all made sense in my head! I hope readers feel it does as they experience this hybrid format. In researching early female superheroes, I quickly realized how much the real-life women of the era were using their own superpowers—as mathematicians, code-crackers, WASP pilots, and spies. So it seemed natural to weave these threads together. At some point in early drafts, it became clear that I didn’t want my three girls to just wish they had superpowers; I wanted them to possess superpowers. So the trio would need mentors. I loved the idea that the real-life women from WW2 history would mentor them, but it also made sense for the early comic book heroines to serve as mentors too. And as I wrote the scenes where the girls use their superpowers, I was thinking visually, seeing scenes play out in my mind. So I wrote those chapters as comic book/graphic novel panels. It felt organic to tell part of the story in a visual way, since so much of it was already rooted in a visual format.
I love the way illustrator Patrick Spaziante brings my girls and their superhero mentors to life. I was drawing on the original women of comic books: Fantomah, the early Black Cat, Miss Fury, the Woman in Red, and the Magician From Mars. They were all inspiration for the superheroes I created for the books: Hauntima, Hopscotch, Nova the Sunchaser, Zenobia, and the Palomino.
The villains in Cape are both real-life (school bullies, Axis spies) and fantasy (Hisser the supersnake). What was your purpose in giving them equal time in the book?
While this is a lighthearted fantasy, there are heavy elements that weighed on me as I wrote this book. Who are the most powerless members of society? Girls. They face demons and villains in so many forms every single day—whether in the classroom or going out for a jog through their neighborhoods. I wanted to write a book where girls take up space, raise their voices, embrace their power unapologetically, push back against bad or uncomfortable things, and most of all, where they literally give evil a kick in the throat. But at the same time, as they work with the real-life women of the war, they see that using smarts and savvy is the way heroes really overcome obstacles.
Although female superheroes in our current entertainment are great, there are much fewer of them than males, and in group stories, have less of a role. Do you think gender representation will ever be equal in the superhero universe? If so, how?
It all comes down to imagination—a lack of it. Nobody could imagine women solving complicated math problems until WW2, and suddenly female mathematicians were called in to serve as “computers,” calculating bomb trajectories and complex life-and-death equations. And then they were doing what had never been done before: programming. Nobody could imagine women cracking top-secret military codes until the few who were hired made major breakthroughs, including breaking the Japanese code called Purple. The same goes for female spies and female pilots: people scoffed at the idea until women pushed their way in and demonstrated they were just as capable as any man.
The examples are endless. People couldn’t imagine women capable of enduring marathons until Bobbi Gibb ran the Boston Marathon in 1966. People couldn’t imagine a woman running for office until Belva Lockwood threw her bonnet in the ring for president in 1884. A woman detective? Kate Warne just before the Civil War. A woman MD? Elizabeth Blackwell in 1849. Women soccer stars? Team USA, 1991, 1999, 2015, 2019. A woman winning the White House? I hope there’s not still a lack of imagination there.
I believe change is coming in the entertainment industry as more women take roles as writers, editors, directors, and producers and powerbrokers, and make the formerly unimaginable seem everyday.
What real-life superheroes (like the ENIAC women) will we hear about in the next installment in The League of Secret Heroes series?
With these books, I want young readers to see that women have always contributed to American history. It’s just their stories were somehow overshadowed. The next two books in the series, titled Mask and Boots, will feature more remarkable real-life women and showcase the jaw-dropping things they did during the war.
Mask (Book 2) spotlights two code-crackers and a spy: Genevieve Grotjan was a mathematician who broke Purple, the encryption machine that Japan was using to send secret messages during WW2. Most of us have heard of the Enigma machine that Germany used (if you haven’t watched The Imitation Game, check it out!). Purple was just as challenging, and Genevieve figured out the pattern that helped to crack it, which was immensely useful. We should know her name. The day of her discovery was reported to “go down as a milestone in cryptologic history.” The second important code-cracker the trio gets to know is Elizebeth Friedman, considered the very first woman cryptanalyst. Elizebeth was a brilliant puzzle-solver, and she went on to break Enigma codes and help catch a spy called “the Doll Lady,” among many others scoundrels. However, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover took credit for her work, which kept Elizebeth’s accomplishments a secret for decades.
Also in Book 2 we meet a real-life fearless spy named Noor Inayat Khan, who shattered societal norms by volunteering to serve as a radio operator—one of the most high-risk jobs of the war—and parachuted into Nazi-held France for the British spying agency, the Special Operations Executive.
In Boots (Book 3), the trio takes to the air with the Women Airforce Service Pilots, known as the WASPs, who were trained pilots in an era when it was still unfathomable for a woman to fly a plane. They tested all kinds of aircraft, ferried planes and bombers, and trained others for their piloting licenses. And we’ll also meet a ground-breaking Chicago pilot named Willa Brown, who was the first African-American commercial pilot and first African-American woman officer in the Civil Air Patrol. She helped train pilots who went on to become the world-famous African-American aviators at the Tuskegee Institute.
Wow. I am looking forward to reading more about our fictional heroines interacting with real-life history heroes. You can find out more about this book, extensive resources, and more of her work at KateHannigan.com. I highly recommend Cape: The League of Secret Heroes for ages 8 and up!
GeekMom received a copy for promotional purposes.