We’re pleased to host author Wendy McClure today on the Mixed-Up Files. Wendy is the author of the three Wanderville books, an historical fiction series about three children who dare to jump off a Kansas-bound orphan train at the turn of the century. After hearing rumors about the terrible lives that await them, Jack, Frances, and Harold leave the train behind and hide in the woods. There, they meet a mysterious boy who will transform their lives forever. Books 1 and 2 are already out, and book 3 publishes in June.
Q: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Wendy! Tell us how you came up with the idea for the series.
A: When I was growing up, I always loved reading about kids on their own. And as an editor of children’s books, I think the idea of kids being independent and having their own world is just one of those essential things that you need for a great story. I started trying to figure out where that notion came from — some of it is just human nature, I guess, but history also is full of times where kids had to work, leave home, fend for themselves. Which led me to the orphan trains, which seemed full of potential for historical adventure.
Q: What were the orphan trains?
A: The orphan trains were one of the first large-scale social programs in the U.S. From the 1850s to 1929, various charities in New York, Boston, Chicago, and other big, mostly eastern cities sent groups of poor and homeless city children on trains out west to be placed in homes — or as it sometimes turned out, work situations. Many of the orphan train riders weren’t orphans at all, but were given up by their families; often they were encouraged to forget their old lives. There were both good and bad things about the orphan trains. Thousands of kids escaped urban poverty, but siblings were separated and families broken apart.
Q: You’re a big fan of The Boxcar Children series. Did that influence you as you were writing?
A: It did! I didn’t actually read the books when I was young, but I came to know them VERY well when I started editing the series (at Albert Whitman). It definitely made me think about the ways kids can build their own worlds with just a few objects and some imagination. The trick is getting readers to look at an old cup, or a suitcase, or a fallen tree, and see all the possibilities.
Q: Can you share a favorite quote from one of the books?
A: It’s when the kids are taken in by a family involved in the temperance movement, and the youngest kid, Harold, is taught some of their songs:
“They [the songs] were all about how cold water was better than liquor, but everyone knew that, Harold thought. He’d never tasted liquor, of course, but he knew it smelled exactly like shoes on fire. Couldn’t folks tell the difference between that stuff and cold water? Why did they need so many songs to explain?”
Q: What do you hope readers learn or take away from the books?
A: That a lot of things in history were good and bad at the same time. Oh, but that sounds heavy…I really want them to just have a great reading experience.
Q: As a middle grade author, what do you love best about writing for this audience?
A: The school visits! The kids are great — their enthusiasm is fantastic, and they ask great questions.
Q: Describe the series in three words.
A: OUR OWN TOWN!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Nothing! I’m enjoying having some time in the evenings right now.
Q: You’re also a children’s book editor at Albert Whitman, as you mentioned. Was it difficult or easy to be both a writer and editor?
A: It was hard in terms of having time and energy to write. But at the same time, knowing the editorial process can make writing easier — I have more perspective on my drafts, and I worry less about certain things (because I know it’s a copy editor’s or proofreader’s job to worry about them). Really, I’ve learned so much about both professions by spending time in the other!
Q: What’s in your to-read pile at the moment?
A: A lot of manuscripts! Also I just tracked down some out-of-print middle grade books I remember reading as a kid, like A Candle in Her Room by Ruth Arthur and What the Neighbours Did by Phillipa Pearce. Very British stuff, and I can’t wait to read.
Q: And finally, what do you like to do in your spare time, when you’re not writing or editing?
A: Read read read!
Thanks so much, Wendy, for joining us! Find Wendy on Twitter @Wendy_Mc.
Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days and Calli Be Gold. Find her at micheleweberhurwitz.com.
Great interview! I love the first two Wanderville books and can’t wait for the next one 🙂