Posts Tagged Middle Grade Historical Fiction

An Interview with Historical Fiction Author Michelle Jabès Corpora about her latest, The Dust Bowl

Today, on the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors we welcome Michelle Jabès Corpora, who is a writer, editor, community organizer and martial artist. In addition to working in the publishing industry for fifteen years as an editor, she has ghostwritten five novels in a long-running middle grade mystery series. She is the author of The Dust Bowl (Penguin Workshop) and The Fog of War: Martha Gellhorn at the D-Day Landings(Pushkin Press).

Congratulations on publishing two middle grade novels in one year. Today, we’re going to discuss The Dust Bowl, which is the inaugural book in the middle grade series, American Horse Tales. Congratulations to you Michelle!

I’m so excited to talk with you about your love of writing historical fiction for middle grade readers. I love that you’ve been able to jump from the editing side to the authoring side.

You have so many visceral details about what it was like to live in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. In fact, the dust and the setting become like a character in the book. Can you talk a little bit about your research process?

I love that you said that the setting became “like a character in the book” – that perfectly describes how I felt about it too! Some might see the research process as the “boring part” of the writing process, but it’s actually what made me fall in love with historical fiction. Not only is it fun to do, but it really enriched me as a person in a way that stayed with me long after I finished writing the book. In preparation for Dust Bowl, I watched Ken Burns’ documentary about the event itself, as well as his (14 hour?) documentary about the Roosevelts, which really helped set the stage for the eras that led to and followed the Dust Bowl. Watching the footage of the dust storms, listening to interviews with people who lived through it, and learning about the historical context about the time really helped not only create the setting, but also the plot itself and what my characters would have been going through. I also read The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, which was essential in writing Ginny’s voice in the dialect of the time. I collected digital photographs from the era, and did exhaustive internet research as well, to make sure I had every detail right—from the kind of food Ginny would have eaten, down to the type of radio they’d have in their farmhouse. To me, it was essential to have the setting come alive, so that young readers would really get a visceral understanding of what it is was to live through this remarkable time in our history.

Your main character Ginny loves her horse Thimble and would do anything to keep Pa from selling him. I could really feel Ginny’s affection for her horse. What is your relationship to horses and how did you go about creating Thimble as a character?

As a child, I wasn’t really a “horse girl” myself, but I was definitely a huge animal lover. I volunteered at a wildlife rescue during college, and my first job out of college was as a veterinary technician. My goal with Thimble was to make him a character in a realistic—non magical—way. I wanted to try and recreate the relationship we have with our animal companions, where we talk to them, see their reactions and their expressions, and imagine what they might be saying to us if they could talk. To me, Thimble was kind of like an extension of Ginny’s personality, a bit like her subconscious mind. When she was excited about adventure, she imagined his own excitement to join her on that adventure. But when she tried to push away the doubts about what she was doing, she imagined that Thimble, her partner and protector, seemed to confirm those doubts with his worried glances. I think there’s a reason that people seem to “look like their pets” – when we become close to an animal, we create an emotional bond with them unlike any other. I did my best to recreate that bond between Ginny and Thimble.

Ginny is a bit of a trickster in some respects and very determined. Was she hard to write? How much were you like Ginny as a child?

Ginny was fun to write—and definitely not like me! I was a shy, very rule-abiding kid. But I had daring friends who helped pull me out of my shell, so maybe my friends helped to inform Ginny’s character. I think what really helped solidify the character in my mind was the essential struggle between Ginny and Pa. Both father and daughter were willing to do anything to protect the things that defined their family—but they disagreed on the right way to go about doing that. I envisioned Ginny and Pa as reflections of the same character, who ultimately find a way to see that they’re both right, and that they’re both wrong. I think it’s a situation that many of us as children and as parents have experienced with our loved ones, which is why the story felt so meaningful to me. I love Ginny for her courage, for her wit, and for her ability to change her mind, or admit fault. In some ways, that’s the biggest test of courage a person can face.

I enjoyed Silvio as a character. He’s another very determined character. What do you like best about him?

I loved Silvio’s easygoing manner, his humor, and his charm. Silvio was the light in a fairly dark story, and I appreciate him for that. Even though he had experienced terrible personal tragedy, Silvio kept his eyes on the horizon, dreaming about his future, and throwing himself into the unknown in order to take care of his family. I love his breezy heroism. I felt like Silvio is the kind of friend everyone wants—someone who will make you a sandwich on a bad day and make you laugh, but who also isn’t afraid to stand up and tell you when you’re being ridiculous!

Before you became an author, you had extensive experience as an editor (Greenwillow, Working Partners, a major book packager). How did being on the other side of the fence inform your work as a writer? What did you learn that you were able to carry into your work?

There is absolutely no way I would be the writer I am today without my years as an editor. Being an editor taught me to be ruthless, not romantic, with words, and never to let myself get too emotionally involved in my own skills. My career taught me that writing is something I do, not something I am, and that distinction removed a lot of the insecurities I suffered from in my early years. I learned never to wait for “the muse” to strike, because although there will be moments of inspiration and epiphanies and all those lovely things, at the end of the day writing is work. No matter what, you must sit down and do it. It doesn’t matter if it is the best thing ever written, it doesn’t matter if reading it will change someone’s life. Because surely, those things will never be true if you never write at all! What I have found is that by treating my work in this way, it frees my mind of personal judgment and allows me to just let it flow. Early in my career, writing a single page felt like pulling teeth. I agonized over every word! Now, I can write ten pages in an afternoon, no problem. I completely attribute this to the experiences of my career, which not only taught me the essential structure and form of story, but also forced me to write regularly.

How did you discover that writing historical fiction was your jam? Was it a major aha moment?

Honestly, I feel like almost everything is my jam! Back in high school, a teacher once said to me that I was a “Jack of all Trades,” because there were so many things I loved to do. I really think I’ve continued that throughout my life and my fiction. I even have a chameleon on my website as my personal mascot! I started my writing career with mysteries, then wrote historical, and now I’m starting to work on two horror novels. I think the a-ha! moment came during the writing of Dust Bowl and Fog of War, when I sat back and realized I didn’t need to label myself as this kind of writer or that kind. I write fiction for young people, and I write all kinds. I just love stories, and I love trying new things. Making that personal discovery and embracing that truth really expanded my vision for my career as an author.

Why do you write middle grade fiction?

The ages of 7-12 are a magical time in life. It’s this moment in our childhood where we become fully realized human beings, where we begin to find ourselves and to develop beliefs about life and our moral code. Because of that, writing for this age group is a huge and important responsibility that I take very seriously. When I write a story for middle grade readers, I ask myself what this story is teaching them about being human. My greatest book memories are of authors whose novels I read when I was a middle grade reader myself: Madeline L’Engle, Susan Cooper, James Howe, Louis Sachar, John Bellairs. If a book I wrote had that kind of impact on even one child, I think that would be a job well done.

Anything else you’d like us to know about the Dust Bowl as well as the American Horse Tales series?

I just finished my first school visit with Dust Bowl, and I was amazed at how interested the kids were in history. Right now, as all of us go through such a difficult time in our own history, I think it’s more important than ever to encourage kids to learn about the past, and to teach them in ways that really touch them and demonstrate commonalities between their lives and their ancestors’.

I encourage everyone to check out the other books in the series, which are all written by amazing writers. Horse lovers everywhere will love them! Thanks so much for the opportunity to chat on the blog!

Thanks so much for joining us here at the Mixed-Up Files!

Hillary Homzie is the author of the Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, 2018), Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She’s also a contributor to the Kate the Chemist middle grade series (Philomel Books/Penguin Random House). And her nonfiction picture book, If You Were a Princess: True Stories of Brave Leaders From Around the World is a look at historical and current princesses from many diverse lands who have made their mark (Simon & Schuster, August 2022). During the year, Hillary teaches at Sonoma State University. In the summer, she teaches in the graduate program in children’s literature, writing and illustration at Hollins University. She also is an instructor for the Children’s Book Academy.

She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.

 

BY THE LIGHT OF FIREFLIES: Author Interview with Jenni L. Walsh

Book Cover BY THE LIGHT OF FIREFLIES

BY THE LIGHT OF FIREFLIES, by author Jenni L. Walsh, is one of my favorite historical fiction reads this year. It releases next week (November 2) and I’m going out to get it for my daughter who’s going to LOVE it. Full transparency, Jenni is my agent sister, (huzzah, Shannon Hassan!) so I am predisposed to think she is fabulous, but after you read this interview I got to do with her (and her book), I’m positive you’ll agree.

Book Cover BY THE LIGHT OF FIREFLIES

About BY THE LIGHT OF FIREFLIES

Sybil Ludington believes in the legend of fireflies–they appear when you need them most. But it’s not until her family is thrust into the dangers of the Revolutionary War, and into George Washington’s spy ring, that Sybil fully experiences firefly magic for herself–guiding her through the darkness, empowering her to figure out who she’s supposed to be and how strong she really is–as she delivers her imperative message and warns against a British attack.

BY THE LIGHT OF FIREFLIES (Wyatt-Mackenzie, November 2021) is the captivating tale of a young girl’s journey as a daughter, a sister, a friend, a spy, and eventually a war hero, completing a midnight ride that cements her place in history as the “female Paul Revere.”

Jenni L. Walsh Interview

MUF: What a wonderful hero Sybil Ludington is. How did you find her?

JLW: She certainly was! My first publications with Scholastic were nonfiction books in my She Dared series about girls who, at a young age, did daring and heroic feats. I had been putting together a list of young women who could fit the bill and Sybil Ludington quickly went on the list. My publisher and I decided my next books should be fiction, so I didn’t continue the series, but I knew I wanted to tell Sybil’s story. And here I am doing just that.

Piecing Sybil’s Story Together

MUF: Sybil’s story must have been hard to piece together given the scarcity of records about her. What did you find most challenging about creating her character? What was the easiest?

JLW: It’s always a challenge when there’s little information, but it’s also a lot of fun – like a big puzzle. I took whatever I could find out about Sybil, even seemingly little details like being the oldest child, and began to piece it all together to inform Sybil’s character and the storyline. I came across some awesome details relating to Sybil – like how she thwarted an attack against her home by mimicking an army using her many siblings – and some non-Sybil details that I knew I had to work into the story – like how urine was used to help remove stains while laundering clothing during that era. I find, though, that once I have a bunch of potential scenes, facts, and tidbits to include, the story begins to take on a life of its own and everything begins to fall into place. That’s when things become a bit easier, and even more fun.

Paving Her Own Way

MUF: I admit it – I cried at the end of Sybil’s amazing ride (I won’t say too much about it here because spoilers!!!) when her mother comes out to see her. Their relationship is complicated because of traditional women’s roles at the time. What were you hoping to illustrate for readers with this relationship?

JLW: What a wonderful reaction. I’m so glad you enjoyed this thread. Sybil’s character highly values the opinions of her parents. Throughout the novel, she strives for their attention and praise, it often putting her at odds with her sister. Nothing like some sibling rivalry. But as far as Sybil and her mother, I wanted to show that children learn from their parents (we see Sybil idolize her mom in some moments) just as much as adults continue to learn and grow from their children. I like that each generation brings a different perspective, and I love that I could show Sybil wanting to pave her own way.

((Like reading about spies? Check out this MUF archived article on the spies of a different war.))

MUF You’ve said you love fireflies, (I do too!) and that’s why they’re part of your book. What drew you to incorporate them as a magical element?

JLW: Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve found fireflies magical. Perhaps it’s because we get such a short amount of time with them each year. Even as an adult, the first firefly I see of the season stops me in my tracks. I thought they were the perfect element to give the book a bit of a magical realism twist, using them as a device to illustrate Sybil’s growing confidence in herself. They also made the cover pretty dang cool, too.

Writing Historical Fiction

MUF: You primarily write historical fiction, for both children and adults. What draws you to the genre?

JLW: I’m fascinated by real life people and events. There are some remarkable and thought-provoking people who came before us, and I enjoy giving them a voice. I also like highlighting a person or group or moment in time that not a lot of people know about. So far I’ve brought a WWII resistance group, the first croupier in American history, and an American outlaw to life. Next up after Sybil is a Berlin Wall escapee (that one’s coming in 2022)!

MUF: For the MUF readers who are also writers, what’s one piece of craft advice you’d give to someone who wants to write historical fiction?

JLW: Take the time to fall down rabbit holes. Never fail, I’ll be researching one thing and, if I didn’t take my time with it and go off into a research tangent, I never would’ve unearthed a tidbit that fit perfectly into my plot or sparked a whole new aspect of my storyline.

Looking into the Future

MUF: What’s next for fans of Jenni Walsh?

JLW: More writing! Which means I get to do what I love most. I’m in the middle of writing my next adult historical which is coming in November 2022 with HarperCollins. Also at the moment, I’m beginning to send ARCs out into the world for my next middle grade called Over and Out. That one is coming from Scholastic in March 2022. Once I get my adult historical off to my editor, then it’ll be time to start thinking/tinkering with my next middle-grade idea. I try to always have a project underway, even if it’s just researching or brainstorming what I want to do next. Apparently, I get antsy if I don’t have something going on. Please feel free to follow along with me as I share details about each project. I’m @jennilwalsh across all social media!

MUF: Thanks so much, Jenni, and congratulations!

Jenni L. Walsh

Author photo of Jenni Walsh

Jenni is the author of the nonfiction She Dared series and historical novels Hettie and the London BlitzI Am Defiance, and By the Light of Fireflies, and Over and Out. She also writes historical novels for adults, including Becoming BonnieSide by Side, and A Betting Woman.. To learn more about Jenni and her books, please visit jennilwalsh.com or @jennilwalsh on social media.

To preorder BY THE LIGHT OF FIREFLIES:

Bookshop.org

Amazon

Author Kate Hannigan discusses Boots, the third book in her League of Secret Heroes series

I’m so happy to present an interview with Author Kate Hannigan, who is known for her abilities to deep dive into history and write adventure packed stories for middle grade readers featuring girls with lots of agency. Today, we celebrate the recent release of Boots, the third book in the League of Secret Heroes which has been described as Hidden Figures meets Wonder Woman.

Congratulations, Kate, on your launching of Boots! You’ve been on quite a journey with your three main characters Josie, Akiko and Mae who have been fighting super villains, World War II enemies as well as racism and sexism. Welcome to the Mixed Up Files Blog. In this book, the girls find themselves in Chicago, Sweetwater, Texas as well as Paris–all significant places during World War II, during the time period that your series is set. Tell us a little bit about the research you did to conjure up each of these places.

I love diving into research—sometimes even more than the writing itself! So I had incredible fun pulling together this series. Spotlighting the real-life women from history drove the setting, so for CAPE(Book 1) it made sense to set it in Philadelphia since the ENIAC Six mathematicians were my focus. These women were programming the top-secret computer that was being built at University of Pennsylvania during the war. MASK(Book 2) is set in San Francisco because much of the story focuses on things happening on the West Coast during the war. And now with BOOTS(Book 3), I wanted to focus on the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots) and other women pilots during this time in history, so it made sense to feature Sweetwater, Texas—where the WASPs did their training—and Chicago, where I live, and the remarkable women pilots here.

I’ve long been fascinated with the WASPs and their role in WWII history, so when I read about their homecoming celebrations in Sweetwater, where former WASPs take part, I jumped on a plane to see for myself. There was incredible warmth to the weekend, as history buffs, aviation lovers, members of the Ninety-Nines(an international organization of women pilots), and families and friends of the WASPs gathered to celebrate their accomplishments. I was lucky to meet WASP Jane Doyle, who was 96 years old at the time, and interview her for the book. My superhero girls fly with Jane.

Each girl in addition to superpowers, has real life powers such as the ability to do math (Josie), crack ciphers (Akiko) or lockpicking (Mae). Are these any of your superpowers?

My sister’s superpower is math, and I could imagine her jumping into an exciting role during WWII if she were there at the time! For me, I love puzzles and grew up solving ones in the newspaper during breakfast. But I have to admit that my current superpower is a bit less glamorous: parallel parking. After living in San Francisco and now Chicago, there’s no space too small for me to tackle!

I loved reading about Aunt Janet and Aunt Willa, and the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots). I must confess to not knowing very much about this history before. What do you hope readers take away about these fearless flyers?

First I hope young readers find these figures interesting and want to learn more. That’s the whole reason I write historical fiction: to show kids where we’ve been and how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go. And second, to show girls especially that they can succeed in male-dominated fields and that while it may seem that women haven’t been there historically, they have. Their stories just haven’t been told.

I love how you consistently don’t shy away from some difficult truths, especially racism and sexism. These are painful but you don’t talk down to kids. How do you handle discussing these difficult realities with your own family?

These are painful topics. And can make us feel small sometimes. But the only way to address difficult things is head-on. So I feel like finding something we can all relate to—wanting to sit down for pie at a restaurant—and looking at it from different perspectives can help us understand why things were the way they were and what we can do to fight unfairness when we see it.

The Infinity Trinity is such a wonderful concept–I appreciate how the girls operate as a superhero trio. How did you decide on three girls?

This was a deliberate decision. I don’t mean to shut out the boys, of course, but I do feel like males have been represented pretty well in literature, film, and everything else for . . . millennia! Haha! So I wanted to write a book where girls are the focus and girls have agency. Where they can feel like a part of something big, where they’re crucial to its success, where they have to use their own smarts and skills, and where they can kick evil in the throat. So as I began sketching out the story, I had to make some big choices: to see these kids battle evil and really wallop some baddies, I was heading into the fantasy genre; and to emphasize the role of women in this period of history, I was going to focus just on females. So I made the decision that the superhero trio, their comic book mentors, and the real-life figures from history they work with would all be female.

What are you working on next? Anything you can share?

I’m obsessed with the year 1920! A whole lot was happening then. So I’m working on a middle-grade mystery set at this time, with some fascinating historical figures walking around with my young detective. It’s been so much fun to research, and now I’m writing every single day to get a solid draft done. We’ll see what happens!

We can’t wait to hear an update. Thanks so much for being on the blog today, Kate!

Hillary Homzie is the author of the Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, 2018), Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She’s also a contributor to the Kate the Chemist middle grade series (Philomel Books/Penguin Random House). During the year, Hillary teaches at Sonoma State University and in the summer she teaches in the graduate program in childrens’ literature, writing and illustration at Hollins University. She also is an instructor for the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.