Monday, April 14, 2014

Gwenyth Swain Author of Hope and Tears and American Adventures: Voices for Freedom

Today I’d like to welcome Gwenyth Swain, author of Hope and Tears: Ellis Island Voices,
(Calkins Creek, 2012) and “Riding to Washington: the 1963 Freedom March,” part of the anthology American Adventures: Voices for Freedom (Sleeping Bear Press, 2013). Currently a freelance writer and a library aide, Gwenyth formerly ran a middle school and was a senior editor at Carolrhoda Books. Gwenyth loves great stories, both in fiction and nonfiction.

What captured your imagination in the story of Ellis Island? Did any of your ancestors enter the country there?

None of my ancestors entered through Ellis Island. They came too early, before the immigration station opened in 1892. But my grandmother told me once about visiting there, more or less as a tourist, in the early 1900s. She was a girl, and her do-gooding aunts were handing out Bibles to the new immigrants.

Your book has a unique format, a combination of narrative history and letters, diary entries, poems, monologues, and dialogues about individuals, some real people, some fictional, but representative of real group. In essence, this is combination of nonfiction and historical fiction. How did you come up with this format?

I really don’t like it when a nonfiction book has what are clearly fictional (made-up) bits. I wanted to have a combination of fiction and nonfiction but make it clear which was which. Also, I wanted to make sure that all of the fictional elements—the poems, monologues, diary entries, letters—were based solidly in fact.

From the tale of a Lenni Lenape boy to the Irish immigrant Annie Moore, and the workers who helped process the immigrants, the personal entries in your book resonate with emotion. Do you have favorites among these individuals? Who?

One favorite is the story of Danny and Grandpa Salvatore. In it, a grandfather reluctantly and with great fear tells his grandson the truth about how he came to America. I based the story on a true story told to me by Jeff Dosik, one of the Ellis Island librarians, about a man who had wanted so desperately to become American that he swam from Ellis to Jersey City.

Did you travel to Ellis island? Could you describe something of your research process?

I’ve been to Ellis Island twice, once as a tourist and once as a researcher. When researching, I made sure to visit the Bob Hope Memorial Library. It’s full of great information and photographs. I also spoke with people in the Oral History department and listened to interview with immigrants to Ellis Island.

Did your writing process differ when dealing with the historical narrative versus the individual entries? Which did you enjoy writing most?

It was important to make the chapter introductions—the nonfiction bits—as clear as possible to give readers context for the fictional pieces. I really loved writing the fictional monologues, dialogues, letters, diary entries. In general, I started with a particular written source or a historical photograph, which helped to ground the fiction in historical fact.

How have your readers responded to the book? How does it support the Common Core?

I’ve had great responses presenting the book to kids, particularly in middle schools. Hope and Tears fits in nicely with the Common Core requirement for reading informational texts.

In terms of specific standards, look at RI 5.6: Analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic, noting important similarities and differences in the point of view they represent. Students can read multiple accounts of the immigrant experience, looking for similarities and differences in the journeys and in what happens upon arrival at Ellis Island.

Your other work is a short story from a much later period in history, the 1963 Freedom March. What drew you to this topic? You have a family connection to the event, right?

The story itself comes from the real-life journey my father and grandfather took in August 1963, when they boarded a bus in Indianapolis bound for the historic March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech. Along they way, the “mixed” crowd of blacks and whites on the bus had trouble finding restaurants that would serve them.

Why did you choose to focus on the trip to the Freedom March rather than the march itself?

I was intrigued by the idea of focusing on the journey to the March, rather than on the event itself. After all, anyone who went to the March on Washington was making history, even before the speakers started talking from in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

What were some of your challenges in writing this story?

The challenge with “Riding to Washington” was taking a real story and transforming it into fiction. I knew right away that I wanted to make the story interesting to kids, so even though none of the children in my family went to the March, I made sure the main character in “Riding” was a child—a girl who’s a bit of a trouble-maker at home.

How did this anthology come about? What was it like working on a collaborative project like this?

Riding to Washington was first published as a picture book with illustrations by David Geister. The publisher, Sleeping Bear Press, is very savvy. They’ve seen that kids in grades 2-4 are avid readers of history. So they re-formatted three historical picture books (one by me and two by Gloria Whelan) and put them together as American Adventures: Voices for Freedom. All three stories touch on some aspect of black history.

You’ve written over two dozen other books on a wide range of historical topics. Could you tell us about some of your other work?

My other recent book is a You Choose adventure. You know, the books where at the end of every few pages, you have to decide what the character does. Mine is World War I: An Interactive Adventure, published by Capstone, which has many You Choose books. It was fun to write, and I’ve even gotten fan mail from readers!

What are your plans for the future? What other topics have captured your interest?
On my story slinger blog, I’m doing a series of posts on a favorite topic: the history of one-room schools in America. I’m calling the series “One-Room Nation.” It’s a chance to showcase my research and photos of one-room schools, and I’ve gotten a great reaction so far.

Thank you so much for being a guest on my blog!

Thank you, Linda. It’s a treat to be interviewed by you!

Readers can find out more about Gwenyth Swain and her work at You can also visit her blog at


Anonymous said...

Wonderful interview, Linda. Thank you for sharing.

Linda Crotta Brennan said...

Thank you for stopping by!