Today we welcome to the blog Caroline Starr Rose, whose rollicking adventure story, Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine, comes out tomorrow!
Desperate to get away from their drunkard of a father, eleven-year-old Jasper and his older brother Melvin often talk of running away, of heading north to Alaska to chase riches beyond their wildest dreams. The Klondike Gold Rush is calling, and Melvin has finally decided the time to go is now—even if that means leaving Jasper behind. But Jasper has other plans and follows his brother aboard a steamer as a stowaway.
Onboard the ship, Jasper hears a rumor about One-Eyed Riley, an old coot who’s long since gone, but is said to have left clues to the location of his stake, which still has plenty of gold left. The first person to unravel the clues and find the mine can stake the claim and become filthy rich. Jasper is quick to catch gold fever and knows he and Melvin can find the mine—all they have to do is survive the rough Alaskan terrain, along with the steep competition from the unscrupulous and dangerous people they encounter along the way.
In an endearing, funny, pitch-perfect middle grade voice, Caroline Starr Rose tells another stellar historical adventure young readers will long remember.
Why do you write historical fiction? Why do you think kids like to read it?
I always enjoyed history in school, but never felt particularly smart when it came to “knowing” history. There was just too much to master. Historical fiction was my true entry point into understanding the past. It went deeper and wider than a handful of paragraphs in a textbook and made history come alive for me. I’d like to think it does the same for young readers today!
I had never heard of the Klondike gold rush before reading this book. How did you first learn of it, and where did you go to research it?
I didn’t know much about it myself, honestly. When I was researching frontier women for my novel, May B., my mom loaned me a book called Women of the Klondike. My interest was piqued. News that gold had been discovered in this far-off corner of Canada inspired 100,000 people from around the world to try and make the treacherous journey to the goldfields. Somehow, my only school memory connected to this piece of history was Jack London’s short story, “To Build a Fire.”
I start all my historical research by checking out children’s non-fiction on a particular subject. These books provide a quick overview and often point me to more detailed reads through their bibliographies. Jasper represents the very first time I’ve visited a place connected with my fiction. My husband and I took an Alaskan cruise during the summer of 2015. My only request was that we stop in Skagway, a town which is featured in the story. We were able to take a tour around town led by a Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park ranger. Talk about a meaningful moment!
How cool! What are some fun stories or facts you found in your research that you weren’t able to include?
Oh, man. There were so many. I included a good number of real Klondike nicknames in the book, but I collected a whole lot more: Snake Hips Lulu, Limejuice Lil, Billy the Horse, Hamgrease Jimmy, and the Evaporated Kid, who was “so small he looked like a bottle with hips.” Cannibal was the nickname of a man who ate raw moose meat. Old Maiden carried fifty pounds of old newspapers with him because “they were handy to refer to when you get into an argument.”
Swiftwater Bill Gates was so rich he occasionally bathed in wine and presented a dance hall girl with her weight in gold. It’s also been said Swiftwater Bill had only one shirt and had to go to bed while it was being washed. (I’m sure Jasper would have had an opinion on that!)
Those names are fantastic! There are a few scary scenes in this book, and I’m sure in your research you uncovered some tales of violence. How did you decide what was appropriate to include in a middle grade novel?
I can say I wanted to be truthful to Jasper’s experience while also being aware of my audience — what I felt would be appropriate. I know at one point my editor asked me how “dark” I wanted to go, that it would shape the tone of the story, but that I needed to go deeper, whatever direction I chose. My intention was to be truthful but to use a light touch and to always, always end with hope. I hope I’ve accomplished that.
You have written two beautiful novels in verse, Blue Birds and May B., and a poetic picture book, Over in the Wetlands. Jasper is a rollicking, voice-driven prose story. Why did you choose to tell this story in this way?
I’ve kindly heard people describe my books as beautiful (thank you, by the way!), though this made me chuckle while writing Jasper. This book is decidedly not pretty, but homespun. While the specifics of the story were murky and changed over many drafts, Jasper’s voice was loud and clear. He’s based on Huckleberry Finn, so I knew I wanted to reflect Huck’s colloquial speech, his sharp observations, sweet gullibility, and tendency to speak his mind.
I knew from the beginning verse wasn’t the right fit. The book also wasn’t meant to be epistolary, as I first thought it would be. Jasper didn’t go in much for schooling, so having him write long letters to communicate the story just didn’t feel right. A traditional prose structure felt best.
How was writing this book different from writing your previous books? And how the same?
There are so many ways I could answer this! I’ll keep it simple by saying writing prose was like learning a new language, one I didn’t know very well. Scenes in prose have limitless space. I felt a little at loose ends until my editor reminded me not to rush through the story but to stay present in each moment so the reader could do the same. There was a steep learning curve with this one, and I’m so grateful for the way my editor helped direct my work.
Similarities would be my desire to make the past feel relevant, real, and interesting and to create everyday characters who are nevertheless brave. And full of heart. I love heart.
Did you have a general writing routine for this book?
My general routine for Jasper could be summed up as “write and destroy.” No writing is efficient, and this is the least efficient book I’ve ever written. I tossed two-thirds of it twice and added fifty pages right at the end. Unfortunately, my writing process seems to include understanding the story in the eleventh hour of the eleventh hour. This doesn’t make for easy work, but if I can remember I will connect the dots at the end, it keeps me believing it’s possible!
The voice here, with that striking dialect, is so strong. How did you maintain that?
All I can say is Jasper’s voice was my guiding light. I’m thankful that wasn’t subject to change as the story grew and shifted. Sure, I shaped specifics along the way — making rules for his grammar, picking certain Jasper-y expressions to use throughout, borrowing a Huck Finn word or two as a nod to Jasper’s inspiration (“disremember” is my favorite) — but his voice remained largely the same. It’s easy to slip into, like a worn, warm coat.
The relationship between Jasper and his brother Melvin is central to this story and drives much of the action. What made you want to focus on a sibling relationship? Are there sibling stories that you have enjoyed or that influenced you?
My boys, plain and simple. My husband and I are the babies in our families by a lot. I’ve always described myself as a semi-only child. So it has always been special to watch our boys, who are two years apart, interact with each other. Even when they’re annoyed, it doesn’t last long. They’re a team. They’re friends. They’re brothers. It’s a beautiful thing.
Honestly, I can’t think of any sibling books off the top of my head outside of Ramona and Beezus. In one sense, I had to pave my own way. I wanted devotion and commitment to be key to Mel and Jasper’s relationship and wanted these to remain strong, despite the conflict that comes with being siblings. Mel, as the older brother, has a deep sense of obligation for Jasper’s safety. Jasper wants to prove himself to his brother, first as someone deserving to travel to the goldfields but finally as faithful to his word. The Johnson boys are pretty great, if I do say so myself!
We agree! Thanks so much for sharing your story with us, Caroline!
Caroline Starr Rose is an award-winning middle grade and picture book author whose books have been ALA-ALSC Notable,* Junior Library Guild, ABA New Voices,** Kids’ Indie Next, Amazon’s Best Books of the Month for Kids, and Bank Street College of Education Best Books selections. In addition, her books have been nominated for almost two dozen state awards lists. In 2012 Caroline was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start Author for her debut novel, May B. She spent her childhood in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and New Mexico and taught social studies and English in four different states. Caroline now lives with her husband and two sons in New Mexico.
*American Library Association – Association for Library Service to Children
**American Booksellers Association
Katharine Manning will henceforth be known as “Snake Hips Lulu.” She blogs here and at The Winged Pen, and is a 2016 Cybils judge for Poetry and Novels in Verse. You can find her online at www.katharinemanning.com, on Twitter, and on Instagram. Her middle grade book reviews are at Kid Book List.