Celebrating the 4th with Marty Rhodes Figley!

In honor of Independence Day, the birthday of the United States, we have the great pleasure of having Marty Rhodes Figley join us.  Her books feature children who play a role at pivotal moments in American history, from freed slaves to pioneer children.  Marty was gracious enough to sit with us for a few moments to talk about her life and some of her books.

I love stories about second chances, and I think your return to college after being a wife and mother definitely qualifies!  Will you tell our readers a little about that journey?

I started writing seriously in my forties. Because my childhood memories are so vivid, I gravitated towards children’s literature.  I was thrilled when Eerdmans published four of my picture books.  After my editor left the company, I wandered in the desert of rejection for several long years.  My friend, the prolific author, Candice Ransom, once told me, “Sometimes you need to do something different if you’re stuck.”

I had quit college when I was twenty, but never quit learning. One fateful night during a Shakespeare class at the local junior college, my professor mentioned that three Seven Sister schools, Mount Holyoke, Smith and Wellesley Colleges, had wonderful programs for nontraditional students. Later that evening I told my husband about it, insisting that I couldn’t possibly do something like that, could I?  After all, we lived in Virginia and all those schools were in New England.  I will be eternally grateful that he said, “Why not?”

I chose Mount Holyoke College because of its excellent academic program, and I must admit, its beauty. I was one of a hundred or so Frances Perkins Scholars (the program is named the woman Franklin Roosevelt appointed as Secretary of Labor).  Our students ranged in age from twenty-something to over seventy.  At fifty-three I lived in a dorm with traditional students (a priceless experience).  I majored in American Studies, which enabled me to take classes in literature, art and history.  One of my most memorable American History professors was Joseph Ellis, superb teacher, author, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for his books on the Founding Fathers.

It took two years, but I graduated cum laude with a tremendous pride in my accomplishment.  I think my kids (who were both graduated from college by then), were quite impressed.

How did that experience affect your writing?

Immersing myself, without distraction, in the latest scholarship available in American Studies gave me a more sophisticated understanding of this country’s past.  That experience turned my love of history into a passion.  I think that has translated profoundly into what I write and how I write.

You call yourself a “history detective.”  Can you tell us a little bit about where you get your ideas?  Do you have any advice for budding history detectives who want to follow in your footsteps?

I try to write about children or events that haven’t been done at all, or too many times in children’s literature.  I’m continually on the lookout for new ideas.  The Schoolchildren’s Blizzard was a result of watching the TV documentary “Blizzard” on the History Channel.  Books based on specific historical events or times like John McCullough’s excellent 1776 sometimes provide vivid portrayals of historical children.  That’s where I first learned about John Greenwood (John Greenwood’s Journey to Bunker Hill).

Once I have my idea I delve into old and new books, letters, newspapers, and other primary sources (first-hand accounts of historical events).  Some primary sources are better than others.  Questions to always ask: Why was this written? Who was it written for?  Does it seem accurate compared to other sources?  When I’m able to visit a place where the event took place, or the person lived, then history really comes alive.  Interviewing someone who is knowledgeable about your subject is a real plus.

Advice for young writers:  Visit your local museums and historical places. Watch the History Channel, read history books, and historical fiction.  Decide what historical event or person interests you. Ask your librarian to recommend the best books to read on that subject. Many times material at the back of the book will include further recommended reading and websites for you to investigate.  Finding out about history is like following a trail of breadcrumbs until you reach your destination.

You really share a great joy for history in your books.  Do you have a favorite book to share for middle-grade readers as we celebrate the Fourth?

I think John Greenwood’s Journey to Bunker Hill is an inspiring Fourth of July book.

May 1775:  Fifteen-year-old John Greenwood (who later became George Washington’s favorite dentist) ran away from his uncle’s house in Maine, where he was learning furniture making.  He walked 150 miles back to Boston.  War was brewing and John wanted to see if his parents and siblings were safe. John ended up enlisting in the Continental Army, as a fifer—just in time for the Battle of Bunker Hill.  After that, he saw lots of action. John fifed for American troops in Montreal, and fought with George Washington in the Battle of Trenton.  Then he joined the war at sea and was a POW several times—once, in a dungeon in Barbados.  John received only six months pay for his twenty months in the army.  He never asked for more money and was proud of the part he played in the fight for America’s independence.

John Greenwood’s story reminds us of the sacrifices made by the Continental Army soldiers during our Revolutionary War.  They were a rag-tag army, many times going into battle ill equipped, starving and suffering from disease.  They fought valiantly for this country’s independence against what was at that time the most powerful army in the world.

You recently had your book Prisoner for Liberty (Millbrook, 2008), adapted as a graphic novel.  What was that process like, and what do you think the new format adds to the story?

Prisoner for Liberty, an easy reader, superbly illustrated by Craig Orback, is one of my favorite stories.  James Forten, a free African American teenager became a prisoner during the Revolutionary War when the ship he served on was captured.  James must have been a charismatic lad.  He made friends with the captain’s son and was eventually offered his freedom.  He refused to betray his country and was sent to the British prison ship Jersey.  There he once again had a chance for freedom, but instead helped his sickly friend escape.  Later James became one of the wealthiest sail makers in Philadelphia, and figured prominently in the Abolitionist movement.

The Prison-Ship Adventures of James Forten, Revolutionary War Hero (Graphic Universe, 2010) is the graphic novel version of James Forten’s story.  Amanda Doering Tourville expertly adapted it. Ted Hammond and Richard Pimentel Carbajal created the wonderful sequential art.  I think both books offer an exciting reading experience.  Which is better?  It’s like comparing apples to oranges.  What’s important is that James’s story is told.

You’ve also contributed to a series of books called History Speaks, which highlight moments in American history, and then include a readers’ theatre section for kids.  What do you think kids get out of participating in readers’ theatre?  Do you have an anecdote you’d like to share about a particular volume?

This is an exciting new series.  First kids can read the story, and then make history come alive by acting it out.  Lerner’s History Speaks website provides printable scripts, prop suggestions, sound effects, and projectable background images to enhance the performance.

Clara Morgan and the Oregon Trail Journey (Millbrook, 2011) is about a young girl learning to bake biscuits on an open fire during her Oregon Trail journey with her family.  Because of this book I became obsessed with baking the perfect biscuit.  I ended up having a baking contest with my husband’s niece, who is in culinary school.  She won, and I gained several pounds.

Sounds like it was a worthy cause!  What has been your favorite or most unexpected moment so far as a children’s book writer.

My book Saving the Liberty Bell (Carolrhoda, 2004), tells the story of how eleven-year-old Johnny Mickley and his father smuggled the Liberty Bell out of Philadelphia on a farm wagon to prevent it from being melted down for ammunition by the British during the Revolutionary War. If caught, the British wouldn’t have treated them gently.

Several years ago, I was in Allentown, Pa. doing a book signing at the Liberty Bell Museum (located in the church where the bell was hidden). A boy and his mom approached me.  The mom leaned over and whispered in my ear, “He is so excited to meet you.”  The boy proudly announced, “My ancestor was Johnny Mickley.  Thank you for showing what a hero he was.” I was thrilled.  I treasure my photo of him standing beside me, holding the book.

Can you tell us a little about your upcoming books?

The Schoolchildren’s Blizzard (Carolrhoda, 2004) has been adapted as a graphic novel, The Prairie Adventures of Sarah and Annie, Blizzard Survivors (Graphic Universe).  It’s due out this summer.  A Six Questions of American History book Who Was William Penn? : and other questions about the founder of Pennsylvania (Lerner) will be out next year.

And, last but not least, Emily and Carlo (my picture book on Emily Dickinson and her dog) will be published by Charlesbridge, January 2012.  It’s beautifully illustrated by the talented Catherine Stock.

I know Emily and Carlo will be a special treat for Dickinson fans and dog-lovers alike!    Thank you for stopping by, Marty, and giving us so much to think about on this day.  Is there an event from American history that you think has been overlooked by children’s books?  Or maybe you’d like to know more about a particular child from American history?  Share them in the comments below!