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."