Friday, December 28, 2007

Looking Back

We are just days away from a bright new year! At this time I always look over the list of books I have read --Which were my favorites? How does the overall list look? I'm happy with my choices for 2007, although there are many still stacked in my office that I have not finished or even started that will have to go on next year's list. In 2007 I read two books in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series and I loved them both! I also read a bunch to review for the Historical Novel Society. I enjoyed those books, especially World's Afire by Paul Janeczko. Those review books offer me a chance to read books I might not pick up otherwise.
A couple of other historical fiction books that rose to the top of the 2007 list: The Red Queen's Daughter by Jacqueline Kolosov and Hush by Donna Jo Napoli.

Sena Jeter Naslund, author of Ahab's Wife and Abundance said in an interview that "fiction can make history seem more alive and thus more kin to life as we know it." In the same interview she said that "while films picture appearances, novels augment those visual impressions by transporting us inside the character: we can look out through the eyes of another person and also know that person's secret thoughts and feelings, which are beyond the reach of the camera."

Looking back over my list I can see that for a bit I was transported to so many places and times - as a time-travelling nurse to the West Indies, a kidnapped Irish princess, the daughter of Katherine Parr, a widowed child bride in India, and a bowery girl in turn-of-the-century New York city.

Where were you transported in 2007?

Monday, November 19, 2007

An Interview with Author Jeannine Atkins

Jeannine Atkins is the author of several historical fiction books and biographies for young people, including Aani and the Treehuggers, Becoming Little Women, and Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon. Here Jeannine talks about her latest title, Anne Hutchinson's Way.

I'm not sure if we choose our stories or if they choose us. What was the case with Anne Hutchinson's Way?

My heart seems to beat a bit harder when I hear of someone who does something great and never got quite enough attention for that feat, or was too much forgotten. While Anne Hutchinson’s name appears in many American history textbooks, I wanted to give her a book of her own which could bring out more aspects of her uncommon courage.

What were the challenges in bringing Anne's story to life for children?

Picture books, even those aimed at readers age six and up, don’t often deal with the finer points of Puritan theology or colonial laws! I tried to simplify these issues and still give them respect.

How will children relate to Anne?

I chose to tell her story from the point of view of one of the youngest of her many children, so she will be viewed partly as a mother: one who was brave and committed but also, sadly, sometimes distant from the child. I wanted to show some of the costs as well as benefits of having a hero for a mother.

Many authors of historical fiction and nonfiction have a favorite time period. Do you?

I grew up loving Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and nineteenth century New England remains a favorite place to “be.” But books lead me to other great places and I’m now writing about northern Greenland in the nineteenth century and I have an early draft of a book set in ancient Iraq, or Mesopotamia. My college age daughter is fascinated by France in the age of the Revolution, so… who knows?

What can your fans look forward to next?

A piece I wrote about Woodrow Wilson will appear in Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out, due out from Candlewick Press in 2008.

Find out more about Jeannine and her books at

Sunday, October 21, 2007

History and Halloween in Salem

I had a great day in Salem, MA on Saturday. Ever since I visited Salem one October with my Girl Scouts a few years ago it has become a tradition to visit around Halloween. This year my family stayed for an evening presentation of the Spirits of the House of Seven Gables. It was terrific. Wonderful costumed actors performed bits and pieces from the House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne throughout the house. The town itself was spirited! What a mix of history and hoax! Celebration and scare!

Here's a few historical fiction reads inspired by the Salem witch trials that are perfect for your nightstand these nights before Halloween.

Witch Child - by Celia Rees
The Sacrifice - by Kathleen Benner Duble
Beyond the Burning Time by Kathryn Lasky
I Walk In Dread: The Diary of Deliverence Trembly, Witness to the Salem Witch Trials (A Dear America book) by Lisa Rowe Fraustino

And for a little fact with all that great fiction read Witch-Hunt: Mysteries of the Salem Witch Trials by historian Marc Aronson.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

An Interview with Author Kashmira Sheth

Kashmira Sheth’s new title, Keeping Corner, is a powerful work of historical fiction about Leela, a child widow. It has already received praise and will be released in the coming days.

I'm not sure if we choose our stories or if they choose us. What was the case with Keeping Corner?
Keeping Corner chose me. The story is based on my great-aunt who was a child widow. I met her when I was nine and always wondered about her life. At that time I didn’t realize it, but that was when the story had chosen me. After all these years it still had a hold on me and I had to write it.

What were the challenges in bringing this story to life?
The most difficult part of the story was how to weave Leela’s story with the larger story of India’s awakening. The research was fun. My dad and mom told me most of the details of that time and I also read many fiction and nonfiction works written in Gujarati about that time. I went to India and visited Gandhiji’s ashram, bought many books written by him and about him and researched archives. But when I started writing the story, I struggled to bring it all together.

How will teens relate to your main character, Leela?
Leela is like any teen at the threshold of a new adventure when her life falls apart. She gains strength from adversity and fights back. The teens will root for that. I think they will realize that even in the most dire of circumstances an individual has a choice and a responsibility to question authority. It may be family, society, or government. I hope Leela’s courage will make them care deeply for what happens to her and help them find strength when facing their own problems.

Many historical fiction authors have a favorite time period. Do you?
Even though my first novel Blue Jasmine was inspired from my own immigrant journey it is not a historical fiction. My second novel Koyal Dark, Mango Sweet is a novel set in contemporary Mumbai. Keeping Corner is my first Historical Fiction. I choose this time because of the parallel journey of a young widow and her country to seek freedom. I really enjoyed doing it and would love to write another historical fiction.
I am be interested in writing a novel that is set in ancient India.

What can your fans look forward to next?
I’m working on two young adult projects and haven’t decided which one I will finish first.

Learn more about Kashmira’s novels at

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

An Interview with Author Kathleen Ernst

I had a great time with Kathleen Ernst at the Historical Novel Society Conference where we sat together on a panel. I was so pleased she agreed to be interviewed. Her latest book is Hearts of Stone, set during the Civil War. The New York Public Library has selected it among their Books for the Teen Age list and it has received many other honors.

I'm not sure if we choose our stories or if they choose us. What was the case with Hearts of Stone?
Hmmn, a very interesting question! I think Hearts of Stone chose me.
I'm never short of ideas; I have so many story ideas swirling in my head that I'll never have time to write them all. But somehow, certain stories wriggle up to the top of my subconscious, nudging until I take the time to write this particular story. Sometimes stories simmer for years before I feel compelled to write them. Other times it happens more quickly, and this was the case with Hearts of Stone. As soon as I started reading and thinking about homeless refugee children during the Civil War, Hannah appeared, wanting her story to be told.

What were the challenges in bringing this story to life?
Patience, patience, patience. I wrote the rough draft in probably about six months, then spent eight years revising, marketing, revising again.
In hindsight, I realize how much I learned about the craft while revising this novel. It's a much better story than it was in its earliest incarnations, and I'm glad (now!) that it didn't sell quickly!
I did major revisions for several editors before the novel found the perfect home at Dutton. My Dutton editor asked for only one significant change, which called for starting the story in a different place by adding a new first chapter. I did, and I *love* the addition. I'm trying to hold on to that knowledge--that it's OK, even necessary at times, to take years delving into a novel, polishing, deepening, making it the best I can.

How do you feel teens relate to Hannah?
I think teens can relate to Hannah in a couple of different ways.
First, they see modern refugees on the news, but often know very little
about their experiences. I hope that reading Hannah's story will help them imagine the plight of all the young people made homeless by wars and violence. Perhaps it can help personalize what they see on TV. And in a broader sense, I think teens can relate to the core emotions Hannah had to grapple with: grief, hurt feelings, homesickness, worry, regret, the burdens of responsibility. The time and place may be very different, but the human emotions transcend any period.

Many historical fiction authors have a favorite time period. Do you?
I've written five novels and one nonfiction book about the American
Civil War, which obviously says something! I grew up in Maryland,
surrounded by Civil War history, and certainly that fostered my interest. I've written about many times and places, though, and would not want to be identified only with the Civil War. I enjoy the challenge of delving into a new period. In any case, I try to look for untold stories--little known threads that have largely or entirely escaped novelists' notice.

What can your fans look forward to next?
I have a new historical mystery, "The Runaway Friend," coming out in Spring 2008. It's set in Minnesota in the 1850s, and is about a Swedish family settling into their new home. I'll soon start work on another historical mystery, which is slated for release in 2009. I've also just finished an historical ghost story that I'm quite excited about! I hope to have more news to share about that soon. Readers can always keep up with the latest on my website,

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Everything I Need To Know I've Learned From Reading Banned Books

Yes, it's that time again - Banned Books Week. Although historical fiction titles do not appear often on the lists of banned and challenged books, they do pop up.

Here's a few to consider reading, if you haven't already.

My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier (Newberry Honor Book)

The Color Purple by Alice Walker(Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and National book Award)

Beloved by Toni Morrison (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)

Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George (Newberry Medal)

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)

Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene (National Book Award finalist)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

In Honor of Yom Kippur a Jewish Patriot, Haym Salomon

Haym Salomon: American Patriot
Susan Goldman Rubin, illustrated by David Slonim, Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2007, hb, 978-0810910874 , 40 pp, ages 4-8.

Susan Goldman Rubin does it again. The author of favorites, The Cat With The Yellow Star, and Fireflies in the Dark, among other notable titles, has continued to bring fascinating people to life for children. Her focus on little known Jewish subjects led her to the tale of Haym Saloman, a Jewish immigrant who was a member of the legendary Sons of Liberty and was given the honorary title of the “Financier of the American Revolution”. Rubin’s well-written picture book narrative is the perfect addition to an elementary school unit on the American Revolution. Following the story Rubin provides a detailed author’s note and a glossary, which further the book’s classroom appeal

(review originally published by Historical Novel Society)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Interview: Emily Arnold McCully

I had a chance to chat with the award winning illustrator/author Emily Arnold McCully after my "Writing History" panel at the Spencertown Academy Festival of Books last weekend. I was excited to learn about Emily's new title, historical fiction picture book The Escape of Oney Judge: Martha Washington's Slave Finds Freedom.

I'm not sure if we choose our stories or if they choose us. You have authored and illustrated so many titles, what was the case for your latest, The Escape of Oney Judge: Martha Washington's Slave Finds Freedom?
Certainly a certain kind of protagonist, preferably female appeals to me. Oney Judge's story is one of coming to consciousness and taking bold action. There is inherent suspense and a satisfying conclusion in that she was proud ever after of what she had achieved, difficult
as it was to sustain. I was also very interested in the way Oney’s daring sheds light on the Washingtons. I had no desire to condemn them - Martha's dismay that a creature she felt she had treated like one of her own children would actually run away from her becomes understandable. George Washington's willingness to use government machinery in secret to recover his lost property is also understandable, given Martha's demands. And while he was already wrestling with his decision to free his slaves after his death, he was still responsible for managing those slaves while he lived. All of this made for an exciting story that has lots of subtlety as well as a clear arc.

What were the challenges in bringing this story to life with words and pictures?
The main challenge was to pare it down sufficiently, zero in on the high points and keep the spotlight on Oney's growing awareness of her opportunity.

This is not your first historical work. Your historical titles include Caldecott Award winner Mirette on the High Wire, set in 19th century Paris and The Bobbin Girl set in 1830s New England. Clearly you don't show preference for time period, but your protagonists do share some traits. How do you select your subjects?
I like most of all to write about brave, persevering girls overcoming their gender disadvantages in ways that today's girls, pretty free of those handicaps, can understand imaginatively. (Another is Elizabeth Cady Stanton in THE BALLOT BOX BATTLE) But anybody with courage and curiosity appeals to me.

What can your fans look forward to next?
Two books: one, called MY HEART GLOW, about the first school for the deaf in America and the birth of ASLThe other is a story of a Japanese boy, MANJIRO, who was shipwrecked off the coast of Japan in the 1830's and was picked up by a American whaler. Over the course of many adventures, he "risked his life for two countries."

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Bookstore Browsing

Had a wonderful time in Blackwood and Brouwer Booksellers today and found some great teen historicals to add to my TO READ list.

The Red Thread by Roderick Townley : Crime drama played out over three lifetimes? Interesting.

The Loud Silence of Francine Green by Karen Cushman: How did I miss this one last year? I've read all of Karen's other terrific titles. The Loud Silence is set in 1949-1950 at All Saints School in Los Angeles.

Petals in the Ashes by Mary Hooper: Set in 1666 against the backdrop of London's Great Fire, Petals in the Ashes is the sequel to At the Sign of the Sugared Plum. Looks great. Hmm, should I read Sugared Plum first?

Fire From the Rock by Sharon Draper: Just released novel set in 1957 tells the story of Sylvia Patterson who is asked to be one of the first black students at Central High.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Author Interview - Kirby Larson

Kirby Larson’s Hattie Big Sky, set in 1918, tells the story of 16-year old homesteader Hattie Brooks. From starred reviews in Booklist and School Library Journal to a 2007 Newberry Honor, it is clear this book is worth the read, but the true test is with the readers themselves, and Hattie delivers. As evidenced by the weeks on the NY Times Bestseller list and the numerous reader reviews on book sites, readers can relate to Larson's Hattie!

I'm not sure if we choose our stories or if they choose us. What was the case with Hattie Big Sky?
I laughed when I read this question -- oh, Hattie definitely chose me! I would never have dreamed of attempting to write an historical novel.

What were the challenges in bringing this personal story to life?
Just to clarify, there is very little of my great-grandmother's story that I know. I do know that she homesteaded in eastern Montana, arriving in 1914 and leaving in 1919, I know that she "proved up," and I know where her claim was. That is all I know. So the challenge wasn't in bringing her personal story to life but in finding enough information so that I could confidently tell a story about a young girl homesteading by herself in eastern Montana. That led to my three years' of research, reading hundreds of books, articles and journals and spending hours pouring over newspapers from the time period. If readers would like to know more about my research process, they can go to

It has been wonderful seeing Hattie Big Sky on the NY Times Bestseller list. How do feel teens relate to Hattie?
It was thrilling for me, too, to see Hattie on the NY Times Bestseller list. I think teens today absolutely know what Hattie was dealing with then. Perhaps struggles today are not so much "woman against nature," but teens are still struggling, as Hattie did, to figure out what it means to be a decent human being. Situations may change depending on the time period, but not the internal issues.

Many historical fiction authors have a favorite time period. Do you?
This is my first piece of historical fiction so I would have to say that my favorite time period is the one I've yet to explore!

What can your fans look forward to next?
The very next book is a nonfiction picture book, THE TWO BOBBIES: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship and Survival, co-written with Mary Nethery and illustrated by Jean Cassels (Walker, August 2008). This book -- the true story of a dog and a cat who survived Katrina together-- was triggered by my desire to write about my two trips to the gulf coast to help with Hurricane Katrina clean-up and by my desire to tackle a writing project with dear friend, Mary Nethery. The project I'm working on now is a middle grade novel, which explores an historical event from multiple points of view.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Turning the Pen On Ourselves

Inspired by the movies Becoming Jane and Miss Potter, here's a book that also reimagines the life of a luminous literary figure.

AngelMonster by Veronica Bennett, Candlewick, 2006 - Here's the review I wrote for Historical Novel Society.

Veronica Bennett’s vivid portrayal of Mary Shelley in AngelMonster guides readers through the inspiration that led to her masterpiece novel, Frankenstein. It is a rare treat to see the culmination of circumstances that become the impetus for an author’s work. Angelmonster does just that. It gives us the voyeuristic pleasure of divulging the life of author Mary Shelley. The child of free-thinkers and surrounded by death and guilt, Mary creates a life for herself with the poet, Percy Shelley causing her family much scandal. She proceeds to turn these events into her own creation, the novel Frankenstein, a novel about creating life from death. Bennett does a wonderful job of interweaving the period and historical facts of Shelley’s life into the novel. Her characters are rich and believable. Angelmonster is the first of Bennett’s novels to be published in the United States. She resides in England, where she saw a portrait of Mary Shelley and became inspired herself.

I'd love to start a list of similar books. Let me know if you have any to add.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Tale Retold: The Fairytales and Fiction of Donna Jo Napoli

(first published in Historical Novels Review, Feb. 2007)

It’s a skillful author who can take a snippet of a tale and craft it into something wonderful that flows as smooth as a wide, old river yet twists and turns like a wild mountain stream. Donna Jo Napoli does just that. She writes for all ages, from picture books through young adult books and in a variety of genres, covering contemporary, fantasy, and historical fiction. Many of Donna Jo Napoli’s books for older readers are retellings of fairytales with strong historical, and sometimes uncomfortable, settings. Even though these tales are written for teens, they have a strong adult following.

Like most authors, Donna Jo Napoli’s path to becoming a writer was not a straight line. She grew up in a family that was not education oriented and she dreamed of being a mother, not a writer. She entered Harvard University on a scholarship and decided on a math major. While taking Italian senior year, her teacher suggested she study literature. She found math more interesting, but when introduced to linguistics, she discovered that it combined her interests of language and math. Napoli ended up with two degrees in linguistics and currently teaches the subject at Swarthmore College.

Napoli eventually found her talent for writing. The settings of her novels run seamlessly with the tales she crafts, but surprisingly, Napoli finds it difficult to select her settings for these titles. When Napoli worked on The Magic Circle (Dutton 1993), a retelling of "Hansel and Gretel", she researched cannibalism. “I didn’t trust the Grimm Brothers,” says Napoli. She found that the practice of cannibalism is rare as a food source and is predominantly used as ritual. “Eating the strength of your enemies brought me to religion, then witches and sorcery, then Christian witches (consorts of evil) in Africa.” She discovered that it was the Christians that hung and tortured their witches. This brought her to the realization that Hansel and Gretel was a European tale and this was a witch that was squirreled away in the woods. This brought Napoli back to Germany and she conceded that the Grimms Brothers were right. She finally decided on setting the book in Germany during a time of turmoil.

When Napoli wrote Bound (Atheneum, 2004), a Cinderella tale, she researched all the tales set in very ancient times. She came across an Emperor of the Ming dynasty who had grown up in poverty giving him a great sympathy for the poor. In fact, according to Napoli’s reseach, he started the civil service exam. Anybody could take the exam based on merit. This planted the seed of her Cinderella retelling. A person of no means could elevate themselves and a prince could fall in love with an ordinary subject. “It’s very complex,” says Napoli. “The tale comes first then the research and the setting.”

Napoli finds joy in that first draft and her research. The second draft is her least favorite. “It’s so intellectual. The first is filled with passion.” During the semesters she’s teaching she works on revisions. “Zel (Dutton, 1996) was thirteen drafts. North (Greenwillow, 2006) took me seven years of putting it away and pulling it out. I threw out the second half of the book many times before it was completed. Research is always going on.” Napoli doesn’t go more than about two days without writing.

Napoli's tales are often told from a unique point of view, such as from the point of view of the witch in Hansel and Gretel or a young boy whom the Pied Piper doesn’t reach. “It depends on which character draws me. In Zel (paper 1998) I do three points of view. I needed a third voice. It depends on which character interests me. It also allows me more freedom in telling the tale. If the reader is put in the mind of a different character that’s good.”

Breath (Atheneum, 2003), a retelling of the Pied Piper, is Napoli’s favorite of her books. “I’m very attached to that little boy,” she says speaking of the main character, Salz. She knew she wanted to write from the point of view of the child left behind. Her research led her to the German version of the tale that included a lame boy left behind. Napoli was free to give him any ailment she wanted. A summer years ago she had worked on a farm that was a day camp for children. One counselor in training was a rosy-cheeked beautiful little girl who had cystic fibrosis. “She had the ability to say the cruelest things to people and really undo them. She didn’t expect to live to 20. She was so pink because she had a low-grade fever. She said something so awful to another kid and I lost it. I told her it’s the quality of her life. I always regretted what I said, although she needed it said. So I wanted to depict this child as an apology to Jennifer long after.” This little boy, Salz, is not like Jennifer, but he suffers like her.

She set the book in the medieval town of Hamelin. “That period was so difficult. If you were a rational person who wanted to make some sense and religiously oriented it would be such a difficult period to live.”

The Tale of"The Pied Piper" is so slight, just a mere poem, but Napoli manages to weave the themes of cystic fibrosis and poisoning in to create a complex retelling. “Most of the fairy tales are about a page to a page and a half. Those older tales are plot lines with no character development. I’ve always been interested in why people do what they do. So starting with a poem is not much different for me.”Stones in Water (paper, 1998) and Fire in the Hills (Dutton, 2006) are two of Napoli’s pure historical fiction novels, both set during WW II in Italy. They are different from her retellings, yet offer the same rich historical setting that make her books such wonderful reads. Unlike her retellings Napoli is not given a plot with these historical novels. With Stones In Water, however, she was sort of handed a plot by a friend in Venice who was taken prisoner by the Nazi’s as a boy. Like the character in her book, Napoli’s friend was taken from a movie theater “He was captured by the Americans when he was in Russia, which saved him. He wasn’t sent home because Northern Italy was still occupied. He was away for 5 years.” The incidents were different but knowing what happened to him gave Napoli an experience she wanted to share with kids. She had more freedom with the historical novel than with a retelling.

Unlike many authors of historical fiction, Napoli doesn’t focus on one period. She likes doing different things. “When I was growing up we didn’t have books in the house. When I met a new culture it was interesting. I was every kid in every book I’d ever read. That’s what I strive to give my readers. I want to give them those experiences, something not familiar. It’s sort of a mission. Books gave me so much. If I weren’t a voracious reader I wouldn’t interesting.”
Napoli’s tales, full of psychological insights, rich settings, and original viewpoints, will inspire all her readers. Whether her readers are enjoying Beast, set in ancient Persia, Song of the Magdalene, a powerful story of Mary Magdalene, or any of her other award-winning titles, they are sure to discover new cultures and amazing adventures.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


Welcome to my new blog! Hope you enjoy the interviews, book reviews, and musings on historical fiction, writing and life. Visit often!