Transcript from an interview with Rosemary Wells

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Rosemary Wells. The transcript is divided into the following clips:

Rosemary Wells

Meet Rosemary Wells

Hi. I'm Rosemary Wells. You may know me because you may have read my books in early childhood. I've written 126 books for young people and illustrated most of them, but part of my work is writing for young adults and for kids in the middle grade age level.

And I'm here today to answer a lot of readers' questions about Red Moon at Sharpsburg, which is a young adult book about the Civil War, and Lincoln and His Boys, which is my new book about Lincoln and his two sons, Willie and Tad.

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Digging into the past for stories

What is the difference in the creation process between writing for very young children and writing for young adults? I don't really usually think about the difference. They are different. I think it's sort of like the difference between playing tennis and maybe playing football. They are different arts and they come from different parts of the brain. I'm sure of this even though I don't have any studies to back this up.

Writing for very young children comes out of my childhood and my emotional experience, and I think that — whatever that might have been — and I think that that's why all of my books for young children have tremendous emotional content. That's what they're all about — kindergarten as a Petri dish.

But it all comes from the past. Writing for young adults, I tend to write about history because I love history. I think the reason I love history so much is that it was so important to my father, and our dinner table conversations, when I was young, usually revolved around the current day politics, world situation and history. And history as he read it and told it to me, and I have loved it ever since.

When I read, I read mostly in history. I think I've read probably 20 books on Abraham Lincoln as well as about 75 on the Civil War. We have a very, very incomplete bibliography in both Red Moon at Sharpsburg and Lincoln and His Boys, but have read extensively and never tire of it. And in this way, you get the detail… the telling detail that makes history come alive for your reader. It's a very different cerebral process.

One is almost entirely emotional and the other is very scholarly. And I am not formally a scholar myself or a professor, nor have I studied in college any significant history, but I love it nonetheless and I have learned it and learned quite a bit more about the Civil War than I thought I would ever know and certainly more about Abraham Lincoln.

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The mythology of Lincoln

Well, I had just finished a novel about the Civil War in northern Virginia, which I know more about than I ever thought I would ever have to know in order to write Red Moon at Sharpsburg, but you can't write and read about the Civil War and avoid Lincoln.

And I did try. I really tried because I thought Lincoln was a bit of a cliché. This man was the most written about person in all of history — I think even more than Jesus Christ. You can find more books on Lincoln. I thought, well, this has been done and I would have to be a very, very finicky scholar in order to dig up anything new about him.

I think the genesis of Lincoln and His Boys came from a book I found by accident called Lincoln As We Knew Him, by Harry Holzer, the great scholar at Columbia University, who has written several books on Lincoln and the Lincoln family.

Lincoln As We Knew Him is a book by the people who actually knew Lincoln, and it is their memoirs of him and their reminiscences of him as a man as they knew him. And some of it's very positive and some of it is by people who didn't like him. And some of it is by Dennis Hanks, who was his half-brother and was certifiably crazy — he really was. And Dennis Hanks managed to foist upon our later generations with all kinds of myths about Lincoln's childhood and young manhood, which I think Dennis probably made up himself.

And so what we have is a mythology of Lincoln that amounts to stations of the cross of Abraham Lincoln. And I thought, well, and reading farther in his life, almost none of this is true! And what I discovered that was amazing and so contemporary and shows the power of an individual is that Lincoln really, truly was an abused child. Today he would have gone to a Title I school, if that, for nine non-consecutive months in his entire life.

And he would have had free lunch and free breakfast and shoes because he had nothing. He grew up in a house with three walls, the fire being on the outside because they couldn't afford a chimney. Then they moved to another house and another. His father was an itinerant worker who picked up odd jobs. He was also a drunk and he was also very abusive. Lincoln lost his mother early. He was very fortunate in his father's choice of stepmother, which probably saved his life.

However, the telling detail — and there's always something in history that'll give you the clue of the entire childhood. Shortly before Lincoln went to the White House — not called the White House then, by the way; called the Executive Mansion — went to Washington as President.

His father lay dying and requested Lincoln's presence and Lincoln said, "No!" He wouldn't go to his dying father's deathbed. And his father recovered somewhat, but then died shortly after. And would Lincoln erect a tombstone to his father? No.

I don't want to read too much into that and so I simply put that fact into my book Lincoln and His Boys and allow the reader to think what sort of relationship… what sort of childhood did this man have and how out of nine months of non-consecutive schooling in the man's entire life — with the exception of reading law as he did before he became an attorney — how did this man manage to speak and write in the years 1860 to 1865 far more effectively, more eloquently and more magnificently then any individual in world history until Churchill and maybe F.D.R.?

And that is a long span of time. That is 70… 80 years. This man from nowhere in Kentucky put our nation on the map as a serious country that was united and spoke so eloquently that no one matched him 'til Winston Churchill. How did such a miracle happen? And then I knew I had to write about him, and what I read about him was what kind of a wonderful father he was.

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Through the voices of Willie and Tad

I decided to write a story about him and about his times and his family and his life in the White House through the voices of two of his sons. Now Lincoln had four sons. One of them, Eddie, died at two, virtually in childbirth which affected their mother greatly, and Robert Lincoln, who lived long into the 20th century and was a most impatient and unpleasant man.

If you look at a picture of Robert, he looks nothing like his father ever could possibly have looked. But Robert does appear in the book. But this is about Willie and Tad, and the book is in first, Willie's voice in a trip to Chicago with his father a year before his father was inaugurated, and it builds up to the Presidency.

Willie was the star child of the family. He was the brilliant, wonderful, kind and marvelous son. Tad, also, they adored them equally. But Tad had a cleft palate. Not a hair lip, but a cleft palate and was seriously dyslexic. He never learned to read or write or even dress himself.

And so the amount of this problem that Tad had (or disability) is never specifically given. They were Victorian and they didn't talk about it. But the wonderful thing about Mary and Abraham Lincoln was they were 20th century parents, they truly were. It was as if they had read Dr. Spock a hundred years before Dr. Spock was born because they were so kind and they believed to bring up their children with kindness and patience and firmness instead of the Victorian children should be heard and not seen or seen and not heard.

This is an extraordinary thing about Lincoln and a lot of people don't know about it and I thought, you know, if kids are going to learn about Lincoln, how about not doing the stations of the cross, which is the library books that were returned after the rainstorm and the writing on the shovel and all this stuff that you can read in the D'Aulaire's.

But in this instance, I wanted to show him as a father because he was such a good father. And Mary, who gets a very bad rap from history because I don't believe for a second that she was crazy. You can read Catherine Clinton's wonderful new book, Mary Lincoln, and find out.

She was not crazy. She had migraines. She was probably seriously depressed. She was probably so afflicted by the deaths of her sons that she had a nervous breakdown. But in those days, people were unkind about any kind of disability that showed, and they tried to hide it and put it in the closet.

Mary was probably no crazier than any first lady of this century, and she did a lot of good, too, and she deserves a good portrait. So I wanted to show kids Mary Lincoln was okay. She was a great mother. She re-did the White House a hundred years before Jackie Kennedy did the same thing and got on CBS. And show Abraham Lincoln as a father.

So the first half of the book is Willie's voice. The second half of the book is Tad Lincoln because sadly, Willie died one year after his mother had begun this enormous renovation of the White House, which in itself, is a wonderful story, and I wish there were pictures of what she did, but there are not.

She complained when she moved into — I keep saying White House… Executive Mansion — that it had been lived in by far too many bachelors with spaniels that drooled all over the furniture and she was gonna change that. And she did and she made it beautiful, and there was a great party in mid-February 1862.

The war had begun. It was a year old, and all of Washington — all of the Senators and Representatives and foreign consulates and ambassadors — everyone who was everyone. A thousand people were invited to this wonderful new Executive Mansion, and it was a brilliant party with a feast and upstairs her two sons, Willie and Tad, were deathly ill with probably what might have been typhoid… might have been some other terrible illness caused by the sewage system in Washington at the time.

We don't really know, but of course they didn't have anything back then except bleeding you off with cups, so there was no curing them. And there were doctors, but the doctors had no medicine. So Willie died virtually in his brother's arms and left this earth and left his family so bereft. And the rest of the book is in Tad's words, and Tad was extremely bright, if dyslexic, and quite capable of telling the rest of the story, which is the next four years of war and how his mother slowly recovered from this terrible devastation and grief and how he became his father's one lifeline to any emotional stability.

It's a marvelous story, and it is buried in the stories of the war and heroism and the generals and all of that. So I wanted to bring out something new and interesting about Lincoln.

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Seeing the world small

I could have written five books a thousand pages long — not that I could have done that — about the Civil War… about Lincoln in the Civil War because certainly people have. How do you decide what you're going to include and what not? Well, your point of view gives you an editing spot which means to say okay, what would Tad have known? What would he have seen? What would he have understood? And for that, I'm a children's book author. This is my profession. I know what kids at various ages comprehend and what interests them because children always see the world small.

They're not worried about the campaign at Vicksburg and what implication that might have for General Grant's career. They're not interested in whether General Hooker was a dead drunk and had to be replaced. They're not interested in their mother going to New York and shopping and being a shopaholic and all this other stuff that was going on. They don't.

They're interested in the fact that out here in D.C., just about and hour's ride by horse from the White House, the Lincoln's would escape the summer heat and everyone was sure about was what they called the miasmas, which were what a child would think would come blowing in the window — swamp fever, probably malaria because there were a lot of mosquitoes and because the sanitation was very bad.

So the Lincoln's would, like all privileged Washingtonians, go out of the city and they went to the Soldier's Home where there was what was called a cottage. And the Lincolns would go out there and gradually, his mother healed there emotionally.

And he had a pony there, and he would play with endlessly what we'd call the "Buck Tales," which was a regiment of soldiers out there — both wounded and active duty. And they loved him. The Secretary of War, Edmund Stamp, who at first absolutely despised the Lincoln children because they kept interrupting cabinet meetings and throwing papers on the floor and generally misbehaving, finally had a little uniform made for Taddie, and he wore it a lot and he would wear it on his horse. It gave him a sense of belonging and a sense of dignity.

Tad suffered terribly at the death of his brother because the death of Tad's brother, Willie also was the vanishing of his two playmates, Bud and Holly Taft, who had been inseparable from the Lincoln boys all during the first year 1861 in the White House.

And Mary was so upset at the death of Willie that she couldn't bear to see the playmates. I don't know whether… no one knows whether it was because she couldn't bear to think that her son died and here were these lively little boys who didn't die and how unfair that was or whether they reminded her too much of her son.

She never went into the Green Room again where Willie was laid in state for one of those tremendous Victorian to-do funerals. But at any rate, all his playmates were gone. They were never invited to the White House again. They disappear off the face of the earth and Tad is virtually alone, except for the soldiers.

And so that's my point of view. This is a round-about answer to that question, but that's the point of view. And then you have to realize that you have a book of a certain length and it must be illustrated as the wonderful Irish artist P.J. Lynch has done in this book. I was so happy to have P.J. doing this because he's such a marvelous artist.

At any rate, you learn to structure it because that's my job. My job is to know how to do books. My job is to know how to lay them out, how to think about 'em, how to start 'em and how to say what do I want to do in this book? How long should it be? How long is a child's attention span? It's my job to know how to do that and it's only because I've done 126 books that I know how to do that!

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Walking through photographs

How do I try to imbue a story or a book with the details of daily life? I think you have to look at a history… not as something that happened very long ago, but that something is actually connected to today because there is yesterday and the day before and pretty soon if you go back a few years, you get to a point where people who were dead now are alive then and you try to walk through history as if it is three-dimensional, not one-dimensional like a sepia-colored photograph.

You take those photographs and you try to walk through them. I would literally go to bed at night and through deep breathing, picture the very famous photographs of Abraham Lincoln and bring them to life — make the move, make his eyes blink, make them move. And I could actually do that for maybe two or three seconds and I would try to picture the time in which he lived for both Red Moon at Sharpsburg, which has a completely different cast of characters and doesn't touch Lincoln, and for Lincoln and His Boys.

And what you have to do is rid yourself of all late 20th century… early 21st century ideas of how the world is and how it works and how it sounds and smells and try to get back to that time. And the only way to do it is to read. I read extensively and looked endlessly at photographs.

Photographs speak to me. I look at the details. What kind of wallpaper did they have? What's… there's the picture of the person, but what's on the table? And what kind of shoes did they have? How many pair did they have? And I would read all about how life was and what the skills and necessities of life were just to find out, for example, a marvelously similar scene where you would see, at least in the 1950s when I was a kid, you would see all the teenage boys hanging around cars.

They had a lot to do with cars and car shops. And they would open the hood. Nowadays, I don't think you can do this, but… they'd open the hood and every young boy knew how to fix a car or do all this and change tires because it was part of young manhood.

Back then, young men hung around a farrier or a stable or a carriage shop because that's how they went fast in those days. It was all horses and this was part of masculine knowledge. And so all of these details gathered themselves. I think you have to have a passionate love for trying yourself to go back in time, to walk back through that doorway, and close your eyes and make those Lincoln eyes blink. And if you have that kind of passion to really understand history as it did happen without any should's, then you can do it, and I have that passion.

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Women's diaries

One of the things that traditional historical researchers will do is to read the direct diaries and the personal writings of people of the time. It's called primary research, and that was all very good. But I found it strangely unrevealing in this way.

I read a lot of diaries. In the Civil War, there are an enormous number of significant, well-written women's diaries because it was the women who stayed home and reported the war and how it affected the civilian population and the men, in general, didn't have time to do that because they were fighting the war. So there were all these wonderful diaries.

Mary Chesnut's is probably the most famous, but there are other ones that are marvelous. But after a while, I stopped — Cornelia McDonald is another significant one because it's northern Virginia — but I stopped because they were all alike and they were alike in the strangest way.

They were alike because you could see they were so Victorian in exactly what they would reveal to you and in what language. They would not really talk about what was really going on because perhaps, the mentality in those days was as different as the transportation, the medicine and the dress. And the way people thought was quite different because they did not write as people today would write or even think.

I had to jump 40 years on…40 to 50 years on to an entirely different war, the First World War. Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth is the first book I know that really talked about how it was to have a brother and a fianc&aecute; and a best friend sign up so fast for those trenches in France because you were not in your manhood. You could not hold your head up if you didn't.

And young men fell like flies for the myth of war, for the joining up, for the glory because they thought, "Uh! Both wars…it'll be over in three months. I'm gonna get a medal. Forever I will be a hero," which is what the heart says to the self although you never say that out loud.

But Vera Brittain was able to write this, and no one in 1860 had those thoughts or understood that. And so I found the primary research to be frankly very repetitive and not too helpful. It was Vera Brittain who made me see the war because the First World War is very similar to the Civil War.

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No brighter, no truer, no more false than we

How do I as a contemporary of the 21st century avoid imposing a contemporary point of view — contemporary should's and shouldn'ts on a book of history, which is a wonderful point and something I think every historian struggles with?

Well the answer is I don't. I can't avoid it. I am a 21st century person. In the same way that Vera Brittain was able to write Testament of Youth in a very real, direct, emotional shunt to the times she lived in, and people from 1860 didn't have that thought process available.

There's no way that I can avoid being 20th century, but I try in this way. I have to accept… I think the greatest discipline in writing about history is accepting life as it was and accepting peoples' thoughts as they were, and they were full of prejudice. This is something I discovered about history, and I look at history very differently than professors do because they're very concentrated on certain areas. But this is what I discovered about Lincoln's time and the time of the Civil War.

If you were to take the most educated people in America, the brightest, the best and the brightest, from Boston, from Washington, from New York, from wherever they came from. Those people at Harvard, those people who were our greatest thinkers and writers.

Probably 90% of everything they knew was old wives' tales. Everything they thought about race including Lincoln, who was ambivalent, who believed — thank God! — that a man's daily work should be paid properly, which was his view that prevailed.

But he had little use for what he called the Negro race and didn't necessarily believe them to be the equal of white men. The attitude toward women that prevailed everywhere — and you can go back to Walt Whitman or Mark Twain or any of the great writers of the l9th century — was unenlightened by our terms.

Their attitude toward children, which the Lincolns miraculously avoided and were 20th century parents, was quite primitive. Their attitude toward law and toward the rights of those people who were poor. Remember, America back then afforded its votes to white land owners and property owners and not much further.

And people who simply didn't believe women were as bright as men and could vote by our lights are very, very primitive thinkers. But you have to avoid that and say that's how it was. But truly their belief in medicine and science, in race, gender, history, archeology… All of this was undiscovered.

Harvard was just starting. A department of science had never occurred to them before. Dinosaurs were just being discovered, and in England where most of them came from at first and were discovered and assembled it so thought with the religious basis of universities like Oxford which claimed to exist to promote Christian knowledge and these dinosaurs came out of nowhere and it offended all of the wisest men and those scholars of the time because they couldn't understand that there was an entire new world — the beginning of modern times happening.

They did not understand and the communication was so bad that… just to give you an example, color photography was invented seven times by seven different inventors in seven different countries who had no idea what the other people were doing.

There was no Lancet. There was no New England Journal of Medicine and so doctors who discovered things were alone and only confined the discovery of, say, cleaning your instruments to their own practice. Forty years after Joseph Lister discovered the germ theory, which he believed was germs flying around in the air, and had nurses with something like flip cans, which he assigned to be kind of guardians of his operation, and his operations did not cause gangrene because the carbolic acid that these nurses were flitting into the air fell on the instruments. He didn't quite understand that.

But forty years after Lister American doctors were still calling cleaning instruments and germ prevention Listerisms, in a pejorative sense. So the lack of communication, the lack of free exchange of ideas was confined to hand-written letters and a post office, which was certainly not the equivalent of anything in the 20th century.

So you have to excuse these people. They were no stupider than we are. No brighter, no truer, no more false than we are. They were just our fathers and grandfathers. They were just as bright as we are, but they didn't have any tools. And the system of learning was so antiquated that you can virtually say the entire field of science and medicine was little changed from the middle ages in 1860, and it took the First World War to change medicine and to evolve it into a modern science.

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The light at the stern of the boat

It was funny to write Red Moon at Sharpsburg because I intended it… It is partly a true story, a very true story of a young woman in northern Virginia who rescued a Yankee soldier who'd had an operation, amputation at the hip, and he was one of only five in the entire war who ever survived this operation at least in a field hospital.

She saved his life. She risked hers, and she certainly risked the approbation of the town in which she lived, but didn't want anything spent on Yankee soldiers certainly. And it was a wonderful story. He, of course, had a monument to him in Vermont and she had no monument and I thought this is a great story.

So I found my heroine and I told that story, but it became a story largely of medicine at the time. And what I did was I took a young man who lived in the area at the time — a very privileged young man whose family owned an enormous orchard, which has completely disappeared from the face of the earth and was ruined by the Yankee occupying army.

And I decided to put her in his hands. He, as a tutor. I started the book in April of 1861 where, in Berryville, Virginia, and you will find this in their historical society, the schools closed because the schoolmaster went off to war because it was only gonna be three months.

And what happens to a young lady who suddenly has no school? Well, her family was unusual and they sent her to a tutor, to Emory Trimble. And he is as most of the scientists — as all of the scientists in the 19th century were — a well-educated, independent man who studied science on his own.

All of the great scientists… whether it's Darwin or Linnaeus or any of them were all in these. They were all on their own and they discovered and researched science because there was no other research and they did it by themselves, and Emory is of this mold.

And my heroine, India, loves science and she loves the rocks and the stuffed owls and she loves the chemistry that…the simple chemistry that he performs in a greenhouse on the Trimble estate. So the story went and became something entirely different, but it became about medicine because I wanted to write a book that showed how life truly was.

And if you're going to pick one area of primitive endeavor in the year 1860, I would pick medicine because it was simply the dark ages. There was no way a doctor could figure out what was going on inside the human body. There was no idea that gangrene came from foully, filthy instruments. It never occurred to them.

And they lost half of their army because of it and the other half of the army because they didn't know about bacteria in water, and so when a regiment of soldiers or a company of soldiers would encamp for the night, all the horses needed water like a car needs gas and so you'd bring the horses to the water and that would become fouled very easily and the men would wash and drink with that water and the entire southern army and probably half the northern army fought the entire war having what was called dysentery in those days.

And many, many more soldiers died of that and malaria than they did of their wounds. And o this was a terrible thing. I think about children learning history. My kids who are in their 30s, barely know about the Second World War, which was the signal event of just before my life began. I was born in '43, and our heroes were the London blitz people. Our heroes were the men who fought that war.

And my children know so little about it, and I see the rush of history crowding out the significant effects of learning because the kids have too much to learn and history is not being taught in our schools as it ought to be.

I think Barbara Tuchman put it best when she said, "We must always look to the light at the stern of our boat to see where we've been or we will drive it into another reef." And I believe greatly in the teaching of history. I think we need much more of it, and I think one of the best sponsors of this is David McCullough, the great historian who also despairs of the lack of historical knowledge of our young people today.

So I wanted to bring two things that they probably never get in school… Lincoln's relationship with his boys and what life was like in a small town in Virginia during that war. One interesting thing is after Red Moon ends, my heroine, India Moody, goes on to college or presumably she does at Oberlin, which was the one college which would accept women of the day.

And people have asked me, "Won't you do a sequel?" and my answer is always, "No, no! I can't because that was the year 1865. There were no women scientists. She would never use the chemistry she loved. She would never use the geology she loved. She could never get a foot on that ladder in that century, and she would have wound up a dissatisfied mother who probab

"Writing is thinking on paper. " — William Zinsser