A bumpy start
When I was growing up, nobody thought I was going to become a writer. Especially if you talk to those early teachers. I struggled a bit to learn how to read. I had to go out for extra reading support and speech therapy, too, because I had a speech impediment when I was a little kid. When I did crack the reading code, I became that kid who was always in the library. I became a voracious reader, but I was not really great at paying attention in class. And I was never fond of English because I'm not good at grammar. I couldn't spell. And as I grew older, I hated when they would make us analyze books.
Yeah, that's when God laughed, I think, and decided to make me into an author. I was the kid who actually did question a teacher about symbolism and claimed that it didn't exist. So this is my penance.
But in second grade, I had a wonderful teacher who taught us how to write haiku. And I liked it because it was short. And that meant my chances of spelling the words correctly were enhanced because I'd always choose words that I knew how to spell. I didn't want to take that risk of being ashamed by spelling words incorrectly.
And my teacher, just in her own brilliant way, explained that I could write down how I was feeling in this structured poem and then the person who would read it would understand what I was feeling. And she said it much better than that. Very, very lovely woman.
And I can remember where I was sitting in her classroom when I had that moment. Because I wrote a poem about my cat. And it was just like this, "Rahhh!" Great triumph in my head just cracked open, you know. And I was like, Oh. I can do this.
I was very fortunate when I was a little girl because my father was a natural born story teller. Maybe it's from the Irish heritage. My father's a poet. And when I was a child growing up, he was always writing poetry and then crumpling it up and rewriting poetry.
And at the dinner table, in addition to being, you know, a storyteller and a poet, he was a minister. And I think all those three things are connected quite deeply. So my father would at dinner talk to us about the roots of words in different languages. And he would talk to us about how, you know, language is connected and that had absolutely a huge influence on me because I went onto earn a degree in college in linguistics.
But what I liked most about my dad was those stories that he would tell, especially like the gossipy stories about the family. And I loved the way our living room was laid out, the way our house was laid out, in the house where I was a little girl. They'd put me to bed and I'd wait for my sister to go to sleep.
And then I would creep down the stairs and sit on the stairs and just listen to him tell stories about everybody. So I knew all the good dirt. And I think, too, you know, being a minister's child, which comes with its own structures and restrictions and gives you all kinds of things to rebel against.
My father told a story from the pulpit every Sunday morning — beginning, middle and end. You know, you have a larger theme, you have specific examples and if you're really smart, you have some subtext. Make them laugh. Make them cry. Send them home. And my dad's an expert at that. He's very, very good. So I think I would not be a writer if I were not his daughter.
My mom My mom's not much into the book world. She's always been a little suspicious of my career because she loves me and she wants me to be okay. And she's always suggested when I'm having a rough day that I should really consider nursing school.
She wanted me to go to nursing school from the beginning. "You get a job. It's good people. It's a clean job," you know. And just has never really put her faith in publishing. What I loved about mom though and how she strengthened me as an author is when I was a little kid, I'd be sent to my room to clean it — which never really happened — I would take a book out and I would lay in the middle of the mess and read.
And mother would come storming up the steps. She was a big woman. You could hear her coming a mile away. And I just have so many memories of her opening the door, getting ready to go [grunts] and say, "Oh you're reading, honey." And she'd do the debate in her head. And she'd say, "Well, finish the chapter and then you can clean it up." So my room was never cleaned.
I've always had something of a conflicted relationship with animals because I have terrible allergies. And I've actually had to get to the point in my life where I can't have a cat anymore. Because it's really, you know it's really the cat or I go to the emergency room, which is just I can't even go in the tiger house at the zoo. Because I get like scary sick, which is so depressing. I need somebody to really fix the whole allergy thing.
But despite those allergies, I just have always loved animals. They've just always been a part of my life. I have a German Shepherd now, who's not the brightest German Shepherd in the world, but we do love her a lot.
And she I had a German Shepherd when my kids were growing up. It's just always It's funny because people say, "Oh, talk to me about your pets," and I have to think for a moment. Do I have pets? Because they don't feel like pets. They really are it's a cliché, but it's a really accurate cliché. That's part of my family.
I was kind of surprised when I wound up As a teenager, I was a foreign exchange student and I went to Denmark. And I did not anticipate that I would be sent to a farm, much less a pig farm. This was the late '70s and when I left the America, I was a very earnest, you know, sandal wearing, granola eating, tree hugging type girl and then I landed on a pig farm of all places.
And worked on the pig farm. Did chores, worked in the fields. And got a good eye opening into what farmers do for a living and what real work is. I mean, nobody can ever whine to me, like my friends who are authors, that what we do is hard because it's not. We're sitting inside in comfort, making stuff up. I mean, how hard is that? You want hard? Go shovel mud on a pig farm. That's work.
And so I had this wonderful experience in Denmark. We had geese. We had ducks. We slaughtered the geese and ducks at Christmastime to make money for the farm. That was an interesting day. And I think what I didn't anticipate I would come away with from Denmark was a real fondness for bacon. And the inability to become a vegetarian. And pork chops. I do love pork chops, too.
My first published book was a picture book. It came out in 1996. It's a story called Indido Runs. Indido was a Bantu girl from Kenya, Kenya Islands. It's a kind of a mood piece about…I was exploring what is it about these folks from Kenya that makes them into such tremendous athletes and world quality marathoners?
And I learned a lot. I interviewed a lot of people. And wrote a story about a girl in her village in the Kenyan Islands. The good news about the book is they translated it into four different South African languages. And it's a very popular book in South Africa and Kenya.
The bad news is it wasn't a very popular book in America. So it sold 1,000 copies and then went to the place books go when they're tired. That book is kind off in that it's kind of a gentle, quiet book. My other picture books fall into two categories. I have kind of rowdy, exaggerated stories for little kids.
And I have history, not fiction, historical events depicted in a way that makes them interesting as opposed to how most history is depicted. I started writing fiction books with my kids who were little. My children are now twenty-three and twenty-two, twenty-one and sixteen.
But just I love being eye level with a four year old and seeing a four year old through a four year old's eyes. So I have these rowdy picture books for little kids. Some of them are out of print. I have another one coming up next year. The illustrator's named R. Point who I think did Utterly Arley. Wonderful illustrator.
And it's called the hair of Zoey Flefambaker goes to school. And Zoey Flefambaker has red hair. And she had so much red hair that it filled this room. And it's metaphorical. It's her wild, lovely, energetic child nature. And she runs into a teacher who doesn't really appreciate that. So it's that kind of book. I'm pretty sure we're going to do a couple more. Because we had so much fun with this brook. So that's sort of the four year old.
Books for younger readers
I'm a proud and patriotic American. And our history was pretty awesome. But the way we teach it and the books are just horrible[?]. So I wrote thank you Sara which is about Sara Jessepa Hale, the woman who really created Thanksgiving as a holiday. Illustrated by Matt Falkner. And Matt's illustrations just bring the book to life. Because they're irreverent and funny. All the text is fact based. But kids can enjoy the facts. You know, school book sugar and all that.
Then Independent Dames came out this past summer. It has almost ninety women and girls no one's ever heard of from the American Revolution, chock-o-block full of information. That book took forever. That was almost like writing a novel. Because there was just so much research to do.
And right now, I'm working on another book that I'm pretty sure Matt's going to illustrate about another one of my heroines, Abigail Adams. So those are the picture books. You know, and you can see I started writing as a young mom. And as my children got older, my interests and tastes got older too.
And that volunteer series is lovely. When people ask me to describe it, I say you took Babysitter's Club and Animal ER and put them together, you have that Volunteers. It's a group of five kids, ten, eleven years old, who volunteer at a veterinarian's clinic which was my dream, you know, as a ten year old. And love animals.
But there's also a very much a slice of life. Real things happen in this book. Because real things happen to ten year olds. Their pets die and get sick. And they have to learn to manage those often difficult responsibilities of pet owning. The series was originally published by American Girl under the name Wild At Heart.
And then the Mattel Company bought out the American Girl and didn't want to do books anymore. So my nice friends at England Puffin reissued the books under the name Vet Volunteers. Right now, we're slated to bring out twelve of them. Because the letters, fan mail, oh, goodness.
You have, you know, fourth graders will send me you know those little tiny school pictures you get? You know, they come in your school picture folder. And they're like who am I going to send those to? Well, they send me those. I get those.
So they'll send me the little tiny pictures of themselves in fourth grade like that. And then they send me 8 X 10 glossies of their pets. You know, if they love their pets so much and their gecko. Oh, it's so sweet. So those are my little kid books.
Many people often ask me why it is or how it is that I jump around within the wider genre of children's literature because a lot of people just kind of find their alley and they stick to it and I write the little kids books and a series and contemporary novels and historical fiction and non-fiction and who knows what's coming next?
And I The only answer that I can come up with is that I have a very short attention span. I get bored easily — very easily. And if I had to do the same kind of book over and over again, I'd be working on a dairy farm. Because seriously, I mean, what's the point? Not for me, thank you very much!
There are two kinds of attention spans. Let me explain that more carefully. There's like the everyday me getting bored in like five seconds, which is why I don't watch television because I know how it's going to end. You know, it's like, uh. I don't know how anybody can do that.
But when I find something that is grabbing me by the throat, I have superhuman powers of concentration. Seriously, it's like all I can think — it's like zero or sixty in my brain. It's no concentration or it's total consumption.
And it feels so good. It's almost like you know if you're driving a car with a stick shift and you're having a hard time getting into gear and you're feeling kind of dumb. The car's making a bad noise and there are people around you that are yelling at you.
That's what it feels like when I'm sort of fumbling around with lack of focus. When I find that topic and I have my focus, it's like the transmission drops into gear and it's like, "Vroom!" And I take off and I'm gone. I can write. I can spend hours in libraries and researching and focus and I don't know what happened to the day. I look up and the sun is down.
Are you in there?
I think if you look at me and if you know me and my husband knows me — my husband's known me since I was three so he's sort of the expert — and he looks at the contemporary novels because I read them out loud to him as I'm writing them.
And he knows clearly kind of where I stop and the character begins. And often, there are some details that I'll pull from my own experience that I'll just hide in a character in a contemporary novel. But historical novels are a little bit different. Just because my life is so different on the surface from those characters.
In Fever, it's 1793, and in Chains. But I think at a deeper level, both of those characters, Mattie in Fever and Isabel in Chains, have this core rock stubbornness that I was born with. And I remember that. I can remember like being their age — like twelve, thirteen, fourteen, and running up against situations and just inside feeling, okay, well I'm just going to keep beating this wall until it breaks. And it usually worked.
Choosing a favorite
I really struggle when people ask me what my favorite books are. First of all, I'm a very, very fussy reader. That ten page rule that I give to kids that's the rule that I live by. If a book doesn't get me in ten pages, it goes back. Because I'm a little particular about editing.
If I start to edit a book as I'm reading it, that's a superfluous sentence. Or that's a clichéd description. If the editor kicks in, I got to send the book back. But when a book grabs me and I lose myself in the book the way I used to when I was a child, then I fall head over heels in love, because I have that reading experience that's so — ooh! — wonderful.
I don't usually read middle grade or YA fiction, however, because I'm really concerned that other people's characters — if it's a well written book and there are so many out there — will get in my head. And I'll inadvertently work them in my story, and I don't want that.
I'm looking forward to taking a year off one of these years and catching up on all of my reading. Now, if one of my kids or like a teacher or librarian I trust comes up to me or emails me and says, "You must read this. You have to read it." Then I'll read it.
And the last book I did that for was Sherman Alexie's Diary of a Part-Time Indian. And I think you should read it. I mean, if you haven't, it's a fantastic book and I didn't edit it once. So I read a lot of nonfiction. I read a lot of biographies, a lot of histories for fun and for research. And my beach books are adult mysteries. Preferably P.D. James, who's got a new one coming out in thirteen days not that I've been counting!
Revulsions and revisions
Fever 1793 for me started in a newspaper article that was written in 1993. Get it? Two hundred years, right? The Philadelphia Inquirer because I was living outside Philly. A museum exhibit had been put together that examined this epidemic that nearly wiped out the city when the city was the capital of the United States.
And I'm a big history geek. And I had never heard about this epidemic. So I was reading the article and I was struck, (a) by that fact, that it was a little known, really important thing in American history. And it was disgusting. Yellow Fever's not a nice disease. It's very gory and you'd puke up blood and it was like people dying all over in the streets.
And I realized that between the disgusting factor and the history thing, I had the perfect book for children. This was going to go over very well with my readers, but I needed to do a ton of research. So I did. I lived close to Philly. I put the kids on the bus. Take the subway down into town and go to the Pennsylvania Historical Society at 13th and Logan Street and just read, read, read.
Found out years later incidentally that at the same time period, Jim Murphy was also there. We didn't know each other then. And he was researching what became his non-fiction book about that exact same epidemic. So he must have seen the same article and really got the same wave length. It's very cool. The books are taught together. And that's lovely.
So Fever 1793 was really an apprentice work for me. I wrote it before I wrote Speak. I actually got it to draft eight and it was still pretty bad so I put it down, took that year and wrote Speak. And the writing of Speak in that first person point of view taught me so much about how to get inside a character's head that I went back and changed the point of view of Fever and revised it a bunch more times until it was ready to be published.
I did have one incident where a child heard an early section of the book and made me tone things down because I am a little blood thirsty. I brought the chapter to my daughter's fifth grade classroom in which the mom in the book has to be bled because she's so ill.
And it was pretty detailed. And I read it out loud. And the room was warm. It was after lunchtime. And a little girl in the back of the room went [fainting noise] passed right out cold. And as a mom, you know, I'm like, oh, God. I'm horrified. Everyone's making a big deal.
But this little part of me — the writer part — was like, "I did it!" But then I went back and I changed it. Because, you don't want your readers dropping over. That's not nice. So that was an interesting experience. Also interesting for me is that book was turned down by almost every publisher in New York.
Because there used to be eight extra chapters in the beginning of the book. What is now Chapter 1 used to be Chapter 9 because I thought I needed to setup the world of characters to engage the readers in the world of Philadelphia in that time period and then start killing people off.
And no editor ever got past the first chapter because they were bored; nothing was happening. So finally, I came to my senses and got rid of those early eight chapters, started the book, by the end of the first chapter, you hear word — you don't see it — but you hear word of a death. Because it really was a very, very intense time.
I loved working on that book. I just loved submerging myself in all that research. And there was a fact that I came across when I was researching Fever 1793 that years later led to the writing of my new historical novel, Chains.
Digging up the facts
When I was reading Fever, I came across the fact that Benjamin Franklin had been a slave owner. And I didn't know that. Nobody taught me that. They always talked about the servants in his books. And when I first read it, I was like, "No! You're making that up."
So I went to the footnotes, bibliography's primary source. And I discovered that he owned slaves from 1735 to 1781. And we have primary source evidence that he owned at least seven people. In addition to which he made money off of runaway ads and facilitating as a printer and kind of a central gathering place, the return of runaway slaves to their owners.
And this slayed me. And it just [gasp!]. My hero. There's a big crash as my hero falls off his pedestal. And I was so confused, you know, because I think like a lot of Americans, particularly white Americans, I had swallowed that cup of selective amnesia that allows us to say, "Well, yeah. Washington and Jefferson were slave owners, but and not focus in on the ugly truth."
So I filed that fact away and worked on a couple of other books. And as I was researching Independent Dames, Women in American History ... in American Revolution, I came across more evidence of slave holding in the north. And I was like, "I don't understand this. Nobody taught me this. I don't get it. I have to read about it."
So I did a lot of researching into slavery in the north, which was insidious and widespread. In 1776, one in five people in New York City was a slave. Twenty percent of the population. Abigail Adams' father, the Reverend William Smith, was a slaveholder in Boston. He owned Phoebe and Tom.
Abigail's husband John and their son John Quincy were the only two of our first twelve Presidents who didn't own slaves. And so, I thought, these facts are accumulating. There was a whole lot more that I could go on about for several hours. Read my book. They're in there.
But these facts accumulated. And for a long time, I didn't know if I could write the book. And thinking about what would it be like to be a slave when everybody around you is talking about liberty and freedom. But as an American, I was so upset and devastated and confused by this that I was kind of, you know, lost. Very lost.
But it was, you know, I kept on focusing in on the character. I went to an exhibit at the New York Historical Society. It's a wonderful exhibit called Slavery in New York. And there was a sculpture of a man and a woman — African American — trying to run away at the beginning of the exhibit.
And it was made of very thin wire and it was just their outlines — very detailed. And I stopped dead when I saw that sculpture because it was ghostly. And I realized that I had ghosts at so many levels in my head at this point and that many white people in all the colonies did not see black people as fellow Americans. They were ghosts. They were property. They were real estate.
And I heard my character's voice in my head for the first time standing in front of that wire sculpture. And she said, "The best time to talk to ghosts is just before the sun comes up," and I wrote it down in my little notebook and I was off — off to the races!
You know, I discovered all this stuff I didn't know about New York City in 1776 and sort of where people's thinking was. By the end of the book, I had come through a transformation as an American. Because while it was the aristocracy, many of the slave owners who led the war effort and the movement to freedom were very brilliant men, who I honor and have a lot of respect for those decisions, but they didn't win the war.
It was ordinary people, poor people — desperately poor people — and slaves and women who struggled and sacrificed for years and years to break free of England. And when I really had a better understanding of the work of the ordinary people, including slaves. There are 5,000 African American men, freed and slaves, who fought for the patriot side.
And what united all of these people — why are they fighting for this cause led by the American aristocracy? They're fighting because they believed in the language of the Declaration of Independence — that all men are created equal and that are united by these common liberties and these God given things.
And folks believed that language. It was so powerful. And so when I got to the end of the book, I was like, you know, I can still love Ben Franklin and Washington and Jefferson. At the same time, too, I'm very sad that they blew it when it came time to write the Constitution because they put the elephant in our living room that we're still struggling with.
Our sin of racism in America today is a direct result of, (a) their actions, and (b) our misunderstandings about slavery. So for me, the American Revolution is not quite over yet. We still have And I kind of took on a new mantel for myself personally. And Isabel has helped me with this stuff.
So my character's so alive. She has to make her own freedom because no one's going to give it to her. And I kind of see that that's all of our responsibility if we're ever going to be if we're ever going to fulfill the dream of our revolution is to realize that we all have to make our own freedom and make it for each other.
And I'm very happy to report that we are now, at this point, closer than I've ever seen in my lifetime to fulfilling that dream. And maybe our revolution is about to be over. We'll see.
More stories to tell
By the time I got Chains to the point where, you know, it wasn't final draft, but we're nearing final draft and then other voices were starting. In Chains, she's got this friend named Corazon, who's a young man. He's very vibrant in my head. And he's whispering to me about all the things that he wants to do.
So the book I'm working on right now is Corazon's story. He continues their story. It's not really a series in that the narrator shifts, but it's linked books. And he's a soldier for the Patriot cause. They've run away so he's calling himself a free man and he believes in these dreams.
And it largely is centered at the Valley Forge winter, which is the crucible of the Continental Army, which has been very cool to write about. And then the third book, as I have it planned now, I haven't done all the research, but I want to look at the third book at the end of the war — the Southern campaign, which was really bloody and hard and hideous.
In the Carolinas and then ending up in Yorktown and Virginia. And, you know, the way that a lot of these issues regarding slavery and freedom were dealt with at the end of the Revolutionary War is what sets us up for the Civil War. And I think if we can have a better understanding of those connections, we'll see our history as an arc. And things will make more sense to folks.
Hooking young readers
Let me tell you a story about my daughter, Meredith. Meredith was not a reader which is the worst thing you could do if your mom is an author. She just didn't like to read. Kind of like me — short attention span, lots of energy.
And she didn't get the reading bug. And she was reading well below grade level, which was a great concern for us. Until she got to seventh grade. And in seventh grade, they did a unit on the Holocaust. And Meredith came to me and said, big eyes, "Mommy did that happen?"
And I said, "Well yes, baby." My father was an American soldier who entered concentration camps at the end of the war. So we have this family connection and she said the words I'd been waiting to hear. She said, "Do they have any books about this?" I said, "I think they do."
And we then amassed the largest juvenile fiction collection about the Holocaust that anyone has ever put together. And Meredith's reading level jumped something like three grade levels in one year, because she couldn't stop reading. All she wanted to read was fictional books about the Holocaust.
And I got to the point where I was concerned. That's kind of dark stuff for my happy-go-lucky seventh grader to be wading through. And I said to her, "Baby, why do you keep reading about this?" And she said, "Mommy, I'm trying to figure out what I would have done."
I was like, "What?" She said, "Well, I keep on like reading these characters. And I'm trying to figure out if it was me who was a German or a Dutch person, how would I have reacted? Would I have taken people into my house? If I was a Jew, what would I have done? How would I have saved my family? Would I have run? Would I have fought? What would I I keep on thinking. And I haven't figured it out yet."
And that was a big eye opening experience to me. And since then, talking to kids because Fever's in curriculum all over the place. And the letters I've gotten from children show me that our children need historical stories in order to develop their own sense of morality. Not only do the stories teach them history when they don't even realize they're being taught history. You know, it's painless.
But it's easier for them, I think — this is my theory, anyways — it's easier for them to put themselves in a difficult situation that's at a historical remove. Because — especially middle grades — that's still kind of young. That's still very vulnerable. And to put themselves in modern situations is scary because it's right