Monday, July 28, 2014


Today I welcome Jane Sutcliffe to my blog to talk about her book, Stone Giant: Michelangelo’s David and How He Came to Be, which recently received a marvelous review in Kirkus

Jane Sutcliffe is the acclaimed author of over twenty nonfiction books for young people. She says her childhood was so average that she read biographies to get a peek into the exotic and exciting lives of others. Now she writes biographies and other nonfiction books for children.

Stone Giant was inspired when Jane visited Florence. She stared at Michelangelo’s David for a very long time, knowing that there was a story in that face. This interview is the story behind the story that Jane discovered.

Could you tell us about that trip to Italy and why you were so struck by Michelangelo’s statue of David?

I honestly went to Italy just as a tourist, not looking for a book idea. Of course, I wanted to see the David, since I’d heard about it my whole life. We were lucky enough to have a very wise tour guide who let us just drink in the magnificent view of the statue. Then she asked two questions. “Do you like David?” she asked. Heads bobbed. “What do you like about David?” she continued.

We all had different reasons. Some liked the physical perfection of the statue, some the artist’s skill, and so on. For me it was that face. In the expression on David’s face, I could see the whole story of David and Goliath. I had never seen anything so expressive. It gave me such a thrill to see that face on the cover of Stone Giant.

How did you approach your research on Michelangelo’s creation of David? Were there any memorable incidents along the way?

I always start by reading as much as I can about the subject. This is the pure joy part of research. And sometimes you find a bonus along the way. In reading about Michelangelo I also learned a great deal about his contemporaries, including Leonardo da Vinci, who makes a brief appearance in Stone Giant. I was especially struck by a brief anecdote about Leonardo described in a 16th century biography. That anecdote became my picture book Leonardo’s Monster (Pelican, 2010).

You begin the book with the “giant,” a big, trouble-making, block of marble. How did you come up with such an opening?

The marble block really was called the “giant” at the time. So it seemed like a natural hook to compare the stone to a big troublesome ogre. The opening sentence is repeated at the end of the narrative with a different twist on “giant,” this time to refer to the masterpiece. My editor actually suggested repeating the idea in the Author’s note and ending with, “There is a giant in the city of Florence.” It was dropped in the cross-read; apparently three times was too much.

You did such a marvelous job of shaping your information into an engaging story. In your book, you talk about how Michelangelo saw David in the stone, all he needed to do was to carve away what was not David. How did you manage chip away at all the not-Stone Giant information to reveal your David story?

Great question! That is exactly how I see the job of any nonfiction writer. Once we’ve done our research, we know our story is all there. All we have to do is reveal it. The art is in knowing what to leave out—not too much, not too little. And never, ever, to add anything that does not belong.

This book is pitch perfect for its young audience. Did you always envision this as a picture book? At what point in the writing process do you consider your reader?

I knew because of its tight focus and its visual appeal that it had to be a picture book. So I had to reimagine all the information I had into something that would appeal to young readers. Once I’ve done my research and my head is all full of adult-speak, I usually step back and just start jotting down ideas, more to regain my own voice than to start the writing process. I think of this step as kind of cleansing the palate.

Can you tell us a little about this book’s journey from idea to published book?

Well, it went to a number of publishers before it found enthusiastic support at Charlesbridge. Everyone there has been completely on board with the idea of a fully illustrated David for young readers.

John Shelley’s illustrations are the ideal accompaniment for your text. What was it like seeing them for the first time?

John is the perfect illustrator for a nonfiction book. His attention to detail and his obvious enthusiasm for the project make the book shine. And his inclusion of some of Michelangelo’s sketches gives the book an added dimension, and something for adult readers to connect to. I think that’s immensely important in a picture book, and often overlooked.

What’s coming out next? What are you working on now?

My middle grade nonfiction book about the burning of Washington during the War of 1812, The White House is Burning: August 24, 1814, will be released next week from Charlesbridge. You can see the book trailer here:

I also have a picture book about William Shakespeare and the Globe, Will’s Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk, due out from Charlesbridge in 2016. It will be illustrated by—ta-da—John Shelley! And I couldn’t be happier!

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Hmmm. Since you asked, how about a plug, not for me, but for our local libraries. (Full disclosure here: I’m on my town library’s board.) Every one of my books starts with a trip to the library. Libraries are as important now as they ever have been. Support your local library, with your time, your visits, and your votes. (Leaving soapbox now.)

I couldn't agree more. Libraries are the living, thinking, beating hearts of our communities! Jane, thank you so much for being my guest today. Now I can't wait to read The White House Is Burning. 

To find out more about Jane and her work, drop by her website at or follow her on twitter at
I just wanted to add that I'm a guest today on the blog. I wrote about the passion of children's nonfiction here:

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Author Lea Wait on UNCERTAIN GLORY

I’d like to welcome Lea Wait my blog, today.

She and I are raffling off a signed copy of her book, Uncertain Glory. All you have to do to be entered in the drawing is leave a comment on this blog post. Good luck!

Lea Wait writes acclaimed historical novels for children set in 19th century Maine. Stopping to Home, Seaward Born, Wintering Well, and Finest Kind are on recommended reading lists throughout the country and have been named to student choice award lists in 13 states. Lea also writes the Shadows Antique Print Mystery series for adults, the most recent of which is Shadows on a Cape Cod Wedding.

Today, she’s here to speak about her latest historical novel for young people, Uncertain Glory.
Thirteen year old Joe Wood has always dreamed of being a newspaper man. When a distant cousin dies and leaves him a printing press, Joe borrows money to start his own newspaper. But now his loan is almost due, and he doesn’t have enough to pay it back. Will special editions about the growing hostilities between the North and South keep Joe’s newspaper afloat? What about Nell, the young spiritualist who’s come to town advertising that she can communicate with the dead? Joe’s friend and partner, Charlie, is looking for a way to debunk her. But Joe isn’t so sure she’s a fake. And when his assistant, the young African American boy Owen, goes missing, Joe turns to Nell for help.

Joe Wood, a thirteen year old boy who owns and runs his own newspaper, Charley, his flighty friend, Owen, an African American boy who works for Joe, and Nell, a young spiritualist, are all thrown together at the start of the Civil War—how did you come up with such a  fascinating and diverse cast of characters?

            I like to mix real and fictional characters in my historical novels. Joe Wood really did publish his town’s newspaper during the mid-19th century. His mother ran a local dry goods store. His friend Charlie, also a “real person,” helped him with the paper, but was a bit flakier and unfettered … so I described him that way. (I include historical notes explaining what Joe’s and Charlie’s future lives were like.) Nell, a 12-year-old spiritualist, is based on a number of child spiritualists of the period, including the Fox sisters. There were free black families in Maine in 1861, and, although Owen is fictional, because of his race, he’s able to give a different perspective on the beginning of the Civil War.

How much of the real Joe Wood is in Joe the character? What did you invent about him? Can you tell us a little about your process of turning an historical figure into a book character?

            Yes – Joe is real! I’ve read his diaries and think I have some idea of what kind of a young man he was. I knew I wanted to center a book on him and his newspaper … and originally set the book in the winter of 1859, which was the year he began publishing. Charlie and Nell were also in that first version. But I realized I needed more depth to their story … so I changed history a bit and set UNCERTAIN GLORY in April of 1861, during the first two weeks of the Civil War.

Joe is torn between the demands of his newspaper and helping his mom with the family store. His father hasn’t been much use since Joe’s brother died. How does this theme of family responsibility and grief fit in with the rest of your novel? Are any parts of the novel drawn from your personal life?

            Joe’s mother really did run a dry goods store. In the late 1850s – early 1860s she supported the family. Historically, Joe’s father was a minister in a small church which closed, leaving him without a profession. In UNCERTAIN GLORY I have him depressed and not contributing to the family, but in the book I blame his depression on his feeling responsible for  the death of Joe’s (fictional) older brother. I thought that would be easier for young readers to understand … and his reaction to Nell also explains why many people were attracted to the messages she brings.

            Luckily, I haven’t had to cope with the problems Joe and his family had.     

How do find ideas for your historical novels for kids? Do you scour historical records looking for interesting individuals? Or do you begin with an era or theme?

            All my historicals for children (so far) are set in 19th century Wiscasset. I wanted to take one town
and show, through a series of stand-alone books, how the geography of a town may stay the same, but the
way people live there changes over the years. Usually I start with one idea and then build on it. STOPPING TO HOME? (1806 – Wiscasset was the largest port east of Boston, and there was a smallpox epidemic.) SEAWARD BORN  (A devastating hurricane in 1804 Charleston, SC, nearby plantations changing from rice cultivation to cotton, and 20% of American mariners were African American). WINTERING WELL (1819-1820. Maine becomes a state … and what role was there in the 19th century for a disabled boy/man?)  FINEST KIND  (the Wiscasset Jail burned, and 2 school boys got the jailer’s family and the prisoners out and saved them)  Those were the beginnings …

I do a lot of work in small town Maine archives! 

So far, all your historical novels for kids are at least partially set in Wiscasset. How can you come up with so many stories from one small town? Do you ever think you’ll run out of material? If you had to set a novel somewhere else, where might it be?

            All small towns are full of stories. I have one Wiscasset book that hasn’t sold yet, and I could continue in Wiscasset for a while, but I’d also like to write a book or three set in the 20th century … it all depends on my time (never enough of that!) and, honestly, which books are selling.  I wrote a book for young people set in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1838 that I still think is one of my best … but it hasn’t sold. So the market is important. 

I love the fact that you have recipes from your books on your website. (I made Cassie's Anadama Bread for dinner last night.) You don’t have one up from Uncertain Glory yet. If you did, what might it be?

            Good question! Probably a stew … Joe’s mother seems to cook those quite often!

Few writers are able to successfully write for both children and adults, yet you also write adult mysteries. Which audience did you write for first? What compelled you to jump to a new readership? How does the process of writing for adults differ from writing for young people?

            I’ll admit … I love writing for children best. But the first full manuscript I wrote was a mystery for adults.  It didn’t sell, and I was happy to turn to writing books for children. Then the mystery DID sell .. and I found myself having deadlines in two genres. Not a bad situation, actually … it lets me write about different subjects, in different ways. My books for children are my “serious writing:” I’m very fussy about accuracy and pacing. Our children deserve the best.  

Can you tell us anything about your upcoming projects?
            Let’s see! The 7th in my Shadows Antique Print mystery series (SHADOWS ON A MAINE CHRISTMAS) will be published in early September. The first in a new contemporary Maine series based on a business of custom needlepoint and restoration (the Mainely Needlepoint) series will begin in January, 2015, with TWISTED THREADS. Right now I’m writing the second in that series, THREADS Of EVIDENCE. And for children? I’ve written another Wiscasset book, set in 1777, and I’m working on a book set in New Jersey in 1970 with the background of the Vietnam War and women’s liberation. 
For any teachers out there, Lea has a Teacher’s Guide for Uncertain Glory available on her website. For more information on Lea Wait and her books, see

Friday, April 25, 2014

Environmental Hero: Diane Wilson

Diane Wilson was a Texas shrimper—a fourth generation Texas shrimper. She had started working on her family’s boat at age eight. By the time she was twenty-four, she was a captain.

Then she read a newspaper report saying that her county was the most polluted in the United States. She confronted four chemical plants to stop them from dumping toxins into the bay.

You can find out more about Diane Wilson in Nobody Particular: One Woman’s Fight to Save the Bays, written and illustrated by Molly Bang.

You can also visit this PBS website

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Earth Day's Legacy

Earth Day made the environment a voting issue.

Despite heavy lobbying by industry, months after the first Earth Day, a strong new version of the Clean Air Act passed the Senate unanimously and the House by a voice vote.

President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order.

Congress enacted the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act. More environmental legislation was passed in the decade that followed
than at any other time in U.S. history.

Now Earth Day is celebrated around the world, reminding us that we need to care for the earth that sustains us. Our future depends upon it.

In the words of Gaylord Nelson, "Are we able to meet the challenge? Yes. Are we willing? that is the unanswered question."

Find out how you can do your part at the Earth Day Network. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The First Earth Day

They filled Central Park and spilled into the streets of New York City. Old people and babies, blacks and
whites, people in suits and hippies. They raised banners, acted out skits, and swept the streets clean.

In Miami, Florida, they held a "Dead Orange Parade" where the winning float sported a statue of the Statue of Liberty wearing a gas mask.

In Omaha, Nebraska, they collected 156,000 cans and built a tin mountain.

In Albuquerque, New Mexico they played mariachi music and marched to protest the stench of a sewage treatment plant.

Over 20,000,000 people took part in the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, a tenth of the population of the United States. It was the largest demonstration in U.S. history.

“Earth Day 1970,” CBS News with Walter Cronkite,

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Earth Day's 44th Anniversary

Denis Hayes was a college student when Senator Gaylord Nelson invited him to organize the first Earth Day.
There was no email, twitter, or cell phones. So Hayes used newspaper ads, mailings, and fliers. He reached out to professors and students, hunters and housewives, cub scouts and kindergarteners. 

He began with this ad in the New York Times:
A disease has infected our country. It has brought smog to Yosemite, dumped garbage in the Hudson, sprayed DDT in our food, and left our cities in decay. Its carrier is man.

Earth Day is a commitment to make life better, not just bigger and faster; to provide real rather than rhetorical solutions. It is a day to re-examine the ethic of individual progress at mankind’s expense. It is a day to challenge the corporate and governmental leaders who promise change, but who shortchange the necessary programs. It is a day for looking beyond tomorrow. April 22 seeks a future worth living. April 22 seeks a future.

The result was the largest demonstration in U.S. history. Check out these images from National Geographic.

Happy Earth Day!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Senator Gaylord Nelson and the First Earth Day

The Vietnam War, desegregation, nuclear disarmament—there were so many issues demanding attention in 1969. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin was dismayed by the degradation of the environment, but how could he convince his fellow legislators to act to save it?

After a major oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, he was invited to speak at a conference in Berkley. While flying in, he read an article about college teach-ins protesting the war in Vietnam. Nelson said, “It popped into my head. That’s it! Why not have an environmental teach-in and get everyone involved?”

That idea was the seed of the first Earth Day.

Here’s Senator Nelson speaking at a rally in Milwaukee on the first Earth Day.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Killer Smog

In When Rivers Burned: The Earth Day Story, I talk about the 1948 smog in Donora, PA, which killed twenty people there.

But the United States wasn’t the only country with smog problems. The deadliest smog in recorded history was a “killer fog” that struck London in December 1952. 

It was so thick that people couldn’t see their feet. Thousands of people were hospitalized, lips blue, struggling for breath. At least 4,000 people died. The death toll could actually be many times higher. 

This incident led to Britain’s Clean Air Act.

Find out more at the History Channel website:

Friday, April 18, 2014

Cuyahoga River or Dump?

Need to move oil from one tank to another? Just dig a trench and let it flow downhill. So what if it soaks into the soil and washes into the river.

Need to get rid of the waste from your paint or chemical factory? Just dump it in the river!

Throw in guts from the slaughterhouse, garbage, and sewage overflow. It’s all perfectly legal—or at least it was in 1969, before the first Earth Day.

That noxious stew made great fuel for the fire on the Cuyahoga River, a fire which would help spark an environmental movement.

Check out this video: The Cuyahoga River Fire: "Don't Fall in the River" put out by the Center for Public History and Digital Humanities

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Earth Week Energy Audit

In honor of Earth Day, I'll be blogging about the environment for the coming week. 

And in the spirit of taking personal action, today I had an energy audit done on my house. 

This is a fantastic service, offered free from National Grid. 

For two and a half hours two men went through my house. They tested airflow with this impressive contraption. 
They checked my insulation, pipes, and ducts.
They changed lightbulbs and tested the efficiency of my refrigerator.

When they were done, they drew up a Home Energy Action Plan, showing me how I could add insulation to prevent heat loss. 
National Grid even offers incentives to help with the installation costs. 

Next winter I'll be warmer and use less energy. What could be better than that! 

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

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Kathryn Erskine talks about Seeing Red

Kathryn Erskine is the acclaimed author of numerous intermediate and teen novels. She won the National Book Award for Mockingbird, a book about a young girl with Asperger’s Syndrome who must help her father deal with her brother’s death. Today, Kathryn’s here to talk about her latest novel, Seeing Red, which is sure to garner its own share of awards.

The young main character, Red Porter, grew up helping his dad fix cars for the family business in small town Stony Gap, Virginia. Now his father has died, and his mom has decided to move them back to her family in Ohio. Red is determined to stop her. He wants to stay right in Stony Gap, where his father’s family has deep roots.

Red’s efforts to save his family business go awry, driving a wedge between him and his longtime friend, Thomas. Digging into the past to help an elderly friend reclaim lost property, Red discovers the dark side of the Porter legacy. Seeing Red is a riveting story about family, friendship, and race relations.

Hi Kathryn, welcome to Lupine Seeds!
You were born in the Netherlands, lived in Israel, South Africa, Scotland, and Newfoundland, and have now settled in Virginia. Seeing Red is set in Virginia, but did your experiences in any of those other places inform the book? How?
Witnessing apartheid in South Africa as a young child set the stage for this novel and my deep feelings about racism.  That continued in Virginia and Alabama in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, when Seeing Red is set.  I explain it in detail in the book’s Author’s Note but when you learn those harsh lessons as a child, they’re hard to forget.

You were a lawyer for fifteen years before turning to writing. What drove you to make the change? Have your experiences in the courtroom influenced your work?
Being a lawyer has helped with research, which I’m very serious about, and analysis.  I’ve always loved writing but didn’t think I could make a career of it so decided to wait until I retired.  When my mother died, still in her sixties, I realized that you can’t wait to follow your passion -- you never know what’s going to happen.  I signed up for a local writing class and that was the beginning of this long, sometimes hard and frustrating, but ultimately beautiful journey.

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of your favorite books. Do you see parallels between it and Seeing Red? Did you consciously draw on To Kill a Mockingbird in writing Seeing Red?
Not consciously, but a story about racism and tolerance and a child’s view of it came from my own past and great works like To Kill a Mockingbird.  I suppose Seeing Red is a 1970’s version of a small southern town that has, like any town, people who try to be their best like Atticus Finch and people who succumb to fear like Bob Ewell, and ultimately how we as a society deal with racism.  I love that Seeing Red has been compared to To Kill a Mockingbird -- that is the greatest compliment.

Could you tell us something about your process? How did Seeing Red evolve from idea to finished manuscript, to published book?
Oh, my goodness, that is a very long story but the short version is that it went through a couple of publishers and a couple of dozen drafts before becoming a published novel.  It started as a voice in my head, like all my stories do, then more characters appear, scenes develop, and eventually I have an idea of what the story is about.  It’s because of the characters that I kept at this book.  They wouldn’t let me go.  It was almost as if it wasn’t my story -- it was theirs and they insisted I tell it.  The most important takeaway for any writer, or anyone really, is to never give up.  I started writing this novel in 1999.  It finally published in 2013. 

This story deals with race relations, abusive parents, woman’s issues, guilt and redemption, and so much more. Yet it never feels heavy handed or didactic. Red, who can tell the model of a car just by the sound of its engine, is such a genuine character. He carries the reader along. How did you put yourself inside the mind of this twelve year boy?
I’m a closet actor.  :o)  Seriously, I have to become my character and see the world through my character’s eyes.  There are many ways of doing that.  I do extensive research about the time and the place and culture so I know how people behave in that particular setting.  I observe kids today, I remember kids from my own childhood.  For Seeing Red, in particular, I walked in the Virginia woods and observed the trees and rocks and creek, throwing stones and stomping on acorns just like Red did.  I sat in the type of desk classrooms had in the early ‘70’s with the attached desk with pencil groove and the seat with a place underneath for your books.  I listened to all the music on my playlist (which is on my website) and much more, and watched movies of and about the era.  I went to historical societies and museums, including the Robert Russa Moton museum in Farmville, Virginia, which shows the history of Massive Resistance in Virginia as if you’re living it.  I visited Rosenwald schools.  I talked with people who lived through that era.  I ate the food Red ate.  I watched the TV shows he watched.  I played Rock’em Sock’em Robots.  I did his chores.  I talked like Red, acted like him, and thought like him.  Basically, I was Red.

Red Porter is a sympathetic character who does some terrible things. How did you balance his guilt with his drive to make things right?
At his core, we know Red is a good person and wants to do the right thing.  We all make mistakes and he feels great remorse for his.  And he tries to make up for what he does.  Those are all admirable qualities.  It’s not that hard to forgive someone who’s earnest and truly sorry and tries to make things right.  If he -- or we -- can use guilt or any negative emotion to spur us into taking action for justice, that’s a good thing.

Secrets propel this story forward. How did you devise this vehicle for your plot? How did you manage to juggle the book’s complex plot strands?
Secrets are an element of the story because we all have them.  And it’s important to know that things are not always as they seem.  We often make judgments based on insufficient evidence.  We need to dig deeper, think critically.  For example, Red is mistaken about Mr. Reynolds based on assumptions and his own prejudices.  We need to get past that.  As far as juggling the issues, I use a software tool to help me organize my story and plot.  With that, I can try make sure the threads of the story are woven in a way that makes sense.

Have you gotten any reactions from young readers about Seeing Red?
Yes, I’m delighted to be receiving fan mail and reviews from young readers.  My favorite is from a girl who said she would’ve given Seeing Red a 5 out of 5 but had to give it a 4 because she was so mad when it ended since she didn’t want the story to be over yet.  I love that!

You’ve written about a boy with a math disability in The Absolute Value of Mike, a girl with Aspergers’ Syndrome in Mockingbird, a foster child in Quaking, and apartheid in Ibhubesi. What drew you to these topics? Do you see any common themes running through all your books?
One of the fun things about being an author is the variety -- you can write about anything!  I enjoy topics that might show young readers something they may know little about.  Reading a novel is an entertaining way of learning.  I think a common theme in my books is tolerance.  Understanding and appreciating people’s differences is important to me perhaps because of growing up in a variety of cultures and always being the different one myself.  And it’s vital for a functioning society.  Now that you mention it, the main character in my next book has albinism!

What’s next? I read some hints that the book you’re working on now will be set in Newfoundland. Can you tell us more?
Ah, well, I did write a YA novel set in Newfoundland but it needs work.  More recently I’ve been working on an adult novel set there.  What’s actually next is The Badger Knight, a Middle Ages adventure novel that Scholastic is publishing this fall.  I love the Middle Ages because it’s almost like fantasy with knights and longbows and superstitions but it actually happened which makes it even more interesting to me.  The main character, Adrian, has albinism and dealing with a difference like that in the Middle Ages could be more than uncomfortable; it could be dangerous.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
I’m so grateful to my readers and hope to keep writing books they enjoy.  I have several projects going right now -- some picture books, a novel in verse, a teen road trip novel, and two others that are still in that amorphous phase where the characters are talking to me but I’m not exactly sure where they’re going yet … but I hope to find out soon!
Thank you so much for hosting me on Lupine Seeds, Linda!

Thanks so much for being my guest! Readers can find out more about Kathryn Erskine and her books at

And thanks to all my readers for stopping by. I wanted to share my good new before I close. The Children's Book Council has named When Rivers Burned: The Earth Day Story as a 2014 Outstanding Science Trade Book and a 2014 Notable Social Studies Book. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Alexis O'Neill on The Kite That Bridged Two Nations

Just out! A contest! Thanks to Alexis' generosity, anyone who leaves a comment on this blog before January 31 will be entered in a drawing for a signed copy of  The Kite That Bridged Two Nations.  

Alexis O’Neill is an award-winning author and an instructor for the UCLA extension Writers’ Program. Her work includes the acclaimed picture books The Recess Queen and Loud Emily. Today she’s here to talk about her recent historical fiction book, The Kite That Bridged Two Nations.
Homan Walsh loves flying his kite along the great Niagara River. Then men come to town, planning to build a bridge across the river, uniting the United States and Canada. But how will they get the first line across the wide and raging water? When they hold a contest to see who can fly a kite to span the river, Homan rises to the challenge.
Alexis had generously offered a signed copy of her book, The Kite That Bridged Two Nations. 
Welcome to my blog, Alexis! 
I read that you got the idea for The Kite That Bridged Two Nations from a minor incident mentioned in David McCullough’s The Great Bridge. Could you tell us about that? What excited you about this idea?
The 19 th century time period, the location of Western New York, that a string could actually start a bridge, the boy’s determination to succeed in spite of tremendous odds – all of this really got my juices going!
Actually, the idea for the story was suggested to me out of the blue by an editor I had never met, from a publishing house I had never worked with. But it turned out that we had both read The Great Bridge by David McCullough about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge by engineer John Augustus Roebling. She was attracted to a short anecdote about how a boy’s kite string began the first suspension bridge over the Niagara River in 1848. That bridge was started by Roebling’ leading competitor, Charles Ellet, Jr., but completed by Roebling when Ellet quit the project in a money dispute. The editor asked if I’d be willing to write a picture book about the kite contest. And I replied with the four words a writer should say when someone asks this: “Why yes, of course!”  (By the way, the original editor rejected my story in the end, but the next editor I sent it to bought it!)
The book is based on a true incident. How much information were you able to uncover about the real Homan? How did you use it to develop the character of Homan?
Other than one interview published at the end of his life with an account of the contest, little was written about Homan Walsh, so I had to go sideways to fill in the blanks. I used census data to find out where he lived and with whom and what kind of jobs he held. A passport application gave information on his height and eye color. Graveyard headstones confirmed birth and death dates. Reports in newspapers of the time attested to his perseverance in his extraordinary kite-flying feat.  And reports from a bridge commissioner corroborated other accounts of Homan’s success and the prize that he was awarded. Secondary sources filled in essential information about the bridge engineer, the weather, terrain, and the times.
What were your challenges in finding a narrative thread for the book’s dramatic arc? How did you solve them?
The true story has a natural, dramatic arc. But finding the narrative thread was a major stumbling block for me. At first, I wrote the story as straight nonfiction. That wasn’t satisfying. Next I played with various points of view, writing poems in the voices of the kite, the ferry, the bridge, the falls and more. And though this was fun to read aloud as Readers’ Theater, the work didn’t carry an emotional punch. In fact, I got so stuck, I traveled back to Niagara Falls for inspiration. Finally, I went away for a week with a writing friend where there was no access to the Internet or other distractions. I read, took notes from my notes, thought, and then wrote what became the first draft for the published book. The key element missing in my other attempts was emotion. The only way I could get to the emotion -- Homan’s the exhilaration of flying a kite, the power of the falls, the thrill of overcoming obstacles -- was through historical fiction in Homan’s point of view.
The Kite That Bridged Two Nations has such a vivid sense of place. I know you once lived in New York State, but you live in California now. What did you do to immerse yourself in the book’s time and place?
New York State’s history is ingrained in me after having lived in Syracuse for so many years. I used to work with historical and art museums there, and conducted workshops for teachers on local history. Even my first published books were about Syracuse! I’ve done extensive research about the Erie Canal, traveled every mile of it, and love that whole period of growth in the mid-19th century when there was such an influx of immigrants and an explosion of innovation.  I travel back to Central New York each year, but I took an extra trip to visit Niagara Falls again to see it through a writer’s eyes. I realized that the word “awesome” was invented to describe the falls!

Your language is so lyrical. It creates such drama:
As inky night spilled on the sky, the river, and the land,
The cold air claimed our hands, our feet—
And contestants dropped away.
I stomped to keep my body warm and pulled my woolens tighter.
Then through the dark, two bonfires bloomed—
First one side, then the other.
The crowds were with me! They urged me on…
How did you use revision to develop your book’s voice?
Revision is a form of play for me. I play with voices, images, verbs, similes and metaphors. I rearrange sentences and paragraphs for impact. When I finally decided to tell the story in Homan’s voice, I went back to my earlier attempt, which was told in poems – and robbed it.  Since poetry is the best way to express emotion, I lifted text from that version and used many elements in my newest draft.

How have young readers reacted to The Kite That Bridged Two Nations?
Here’s an example:  When I do school assemblies, I bring along a replica of Union that a kite expert made for me. One day, I walked onto a campus, kite in hand, heading toward the multipurpose room. As I approached the door, I heard a young voice shout out, “Look, look, Ms. Sanchez! She brought UNION!” When the characters become that real to readers, that’s when I know my story is a success.
Each of your books is very different. Loud Emily is a tall tale set in a New England whaling town. The Recess Queen is realistic fiction about bullying. The Kite that Bridged Two Nations is historical fiction. What was it like working on these different kinds of projects? Do you see any strands that unite all your work?

Language. I love playing with language. Sailors’ commands in Loud Emily. Made up words in The Recess Queen. Vivid verbs in The Kite That Bridged Two Nations.  I love playing with sounds and images, and to do that fully, I keep playing with different kinds of projects.
What can we expect from you in the future? What are you working on now?
I’m working on a picture book biography, a chapter book fantasy, a tween novel and a nonfiction book set in – guess where? – New York State.  Bets are on as to which I finish first!
 Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Yes! I have three cats, am learning to play the ukulele, and dream of being locked in a library overnight with a flashlight, cats and lots of chocolate.

Thank you so much for being my guest, Alexis! Readers can find out more about Alexis O’Neill and her work at