I am a fan of Caroline Starr Rose on many levels. My fan-girl status began when I read her books, in particular the verse-novel MAY B. Since reading that amazing historical novel, I’ve subscribed to her blog, followed her on social, media, and read her other books. I’d already been a fan of verse novels, but Caroline’s work inspired me to try my hand at writing in this form, and I’m actually making progress.
As when trying anything new, and even with established skills, I seek out ways to improve and deepen my understanding of the craft. In the case of writing verse novels I’ve attended workshops, participated in webinars, and read massive numbers of outstanding titles, many of them repeatedly.
Then I came across this wonderful interview of Caroline by blogger/author Gae Polisner. [link to Gae Polisner- http://gaepolisner.com] It was first posted on Gae’s Goodreads blog in 2012, the year May B. Was released. I somehow managed to miss it then, and throughout my pursuit of advice on the genre. I recently found it and read it, so I don’t want to let this same thing happen to anyone else with a similar interest.Caroline’s insights about the craft of writing(and revising) verse novels offer wise but user-friendly coaching tools that I will now refer to often. You can click to read the entertaining and informative post from Gae and Caroline for yourself.
I highly recommend that you do, even if you aren’t writing. There is sometimes a sense that verse novels are “lesser”, since there are fewer words and much more white space on the page. That’s the way verse works, after all, yet few would say that writing (good) poems is easier than writing prose. Take that same mindful and meaningful effort on poems to the next level by crating a cohesive and compelling story, and you’ll have a sense of the challenges involved in writing verse novels.
To accomplish that effectively without losing the heart, soul, and strength of a story is, to some extent, a gift. That’s the word I’ve often used when describing Caroline: she is gifted. This conversation between Gae and Caroline will enhance the reading of verse novels, too, allowing readers to recognize that even the most gifted writer works seriously, intentionally, and intensely at their craft.
That’s what I’ve been doing, and that’s what I admire about Caroline and other masters of the craft.
Warning, readers. This is a longer post than usual, but I hope you’ll find it’s worth every word.
Many people are familiar with the adage:Think globally, act locally.
This advice, like much advice, is simple on the surface but more complex when it comes to real life. I support organizations that have proven themselves to be successful in accomplishing things globally by providing services and support locally.
I’ve supported this organization ever since, always knowing their person-to-person programs make the most of the limited dollars I could contribute.
Recently I learned about the origin story that was totally unknown to me. And again, it reached me through a picture book. In this case, it’s SEAGOING COWBOY, written by Peggy Reiff Miller and illustrated by Claire Ewart (Brethern Press, 2016)
The story is told through the voice of a young man who looks for adventure and finds a connection to people a half-a-world away. During the late 1940s the Church of the Brethern of Indiana were seeking a way to help desperate families in central Europe rebuild their lives following years of destruction during the Second World War.
An inspired Midwest community decided to provide donated breeding stock to farmers whose land and lives had been left in ruins. But their valuable horses and heifers needed to arrive in good condition. Knowledgeable “cowboys” volunteered to tend the pregnant cows and horses on their voyage from the United States to Poland and other countries most in need.
These men dealt with seasickness, storms, and the delivery of a calf named HOPE during their passage. They were met with a landscape of devastation and faces of hopefulness. The illustrations capture the mood, setting, and challenges described in Miller’s simple rhythmic text. The author included back matter (text and archival photos) that reveal further details of life aboard ship and accounts of other voyages by surviving volunteer cowboys. Her author’s note provides context for the needs addressed and the impact of those initial efforts, as well as her resources for assuring authenticity to her story. She continues to post interviews with various “Seagoing Cowboys” on her blog, here.
I’m very pleased that Peggy was willing to answer some questions for me about the origins of her origin story in this debut picture book.
Your website header says you’re a writer and historian. You also indicate you’ve been writing for many years, producing manuscripts for a variety of audiences and outlets. Why did you choose picture book format rather than a longer form to share this particular history?
PRM: I don’t think I chose the format as much as it chose me. I had started out writing a YA novel, which did get written, revised, and re-written a few times after major workshops, like a Highlights Foundation workshop and the Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop. But the market for straight historical fiction for young adults without a fantasy element or romance went south; and agents I contacted who liked the story said they didn’t think they could sell it. So it’s resting. Parallel to writing the novel, I had gone to a Highlights Foundation workshop with Carolyn Yoder on writing nonfiction. I pitched the idea of a story to her about the seagoing cowboys and she was interested. So I wrote a piece about seagoing cowboys in general that she didn’t think was right for Highlights, but she wondered if I might be interested in rewriting it to focus on a single cowboy, which I did and which was published in Highlights for Children in October 2013. When I saw a picture book in my public library about a couple of grandfather’s sitting on a porch telling their stories, I got the idea to revise my original manuscript sent to Highlights from the viewpoint of three grandpas who went as cowboys to three different countries and call it “Grandpa Was a Seagoing Cowboy.” Brethren Press purchased that manuscript; but through the editing process, the resulting book became a quite different and more wonderful story.
Few people have heard of the post-WWII origins of the Heifer Project on which your fictionalized book is based. How did you learn about the seagoing cowboys?
PRM: I grew up in the Church of the Brethren, which started the Heifer Project in 1942. Most all involved members knew about the project and participated in some way or other–raising heifers, donating money, or transporting animals. So I had heard about seagoing cowboys as a kid, but I didn’t know that my Grandpa Abe had been one of them. After Grandpa died, my father gave me an envelope of pictures from his trip to Poland in 1946. Those pictures beckoned to me for a long time and became the impetus for my novel and the resulting research.
With so much research and so many personal stories collected, what shaped your decisions about the narrator and the cowboy in your book?
PRM: As I said, I had started out writing from the viewpoints of three grandpas telling their stories. But that was just too cumbersome, and my editor and I realized I needed to write the story from the perspective of one cowboy in the historical setting and not as a grandpa looking back in time. I decided to use an unnamed narrator who would represent “every cowboy” and add a friend so there could be a consistent companion. I’ve always been captured by John Nunemaker’s experience of finding his own family’s horse on his ship, so when I needed something to help create a storyline, I borrowed his story and named the friend John.
What goals will you use to judge your response when someone asks, “How is your book doing?”
PRM: I’ll base my response on comments I get back from readers and not on sales numbers. Brethren Press is a small press that can’t get into the large distribution networks, so I’m not anticipating mega-sales.
The book has had a wonderful reception so far by seagoing cowboys and their families, as well as members of the Church of the Brethren who share this history. Heifer International staff are excited to have this part of their history told.
One of my main goals in getting the book published was to offer a way for families of seagoing cowboys to be able to honor the service of their loved ones and share the story with succeeding generations. From the responses I’m getting, I’ve hit the mark on that one! It’s very humbling and rewarding at the same time to receive their notes of appreciation.
The mission of Heifer International, [link] includes training and the expectation of a pay-it-forward commitment from recipients. How are the principles of the current organization rooted in the original Heifer Project?
PRM: The intention of the original Heifer Project Committee and the Brethren Service Committee under which it served until incorporation in 1953, was to provide help to the neediest of farmers without regard to race, religion, or nationality. Heifer International continues to operate in that vein. And they operate on the basis of their “Twelve Cornerstones,” where each community that receives Heifer’s assistance receives training in values such as accountability, sharing and caring, gender and family focus, improved animal management, sustainability and self-reliance, etc. But the main cornerstone that makes Heifer so special and in tune with the original program is “Passing on the Gift.” To participate in the program, recipients pledge to pass on the first female offspring of their animal to another family. This gives the original receiver the dignity of becoming a giver and expands exponentially the outreach of the program. The “Pass On” ceremonies pictured on Heifer’s website are very moving.
Please tell readers about your current projects?
PRM: Always too many to get them all done! I have a Seagoing Cowboys website that I’ve recently revamped and write a regular twice-monthly blog on it about seagoing cowboy history. I’m currently working with Heifer International as a historical consultant, researching a book project on the shipments they made to Germany throughout the decade of the 1950s, helping Germany in their recovery from World War II. A writer in Germany is working on that end to find the recipients with the information I’m feeding him, document their stories, and write the book.
Outside of my work with Heifer, I’m independently working on a book about the first decade of the Heifer Project, which I’d love to have ready by Heifer’s 75th anniversary in 2019, but I have my doubts I’ll make that deadline. I’m also working on a book for adults about the seagoing cowboy history, and would like to do a middle grade nonfiction book on this topic, as well. I have another historical fiction picture book manuscript drafted related to the shipments to Germany in the 1950s, which I’m ready to start submitting. And my novel will beckon to me at some point to try again. Not to mention several other picture book manuscripts waiting for attention.
You indicated a lifelong “itch” to write, and that you’ve now found your way to embrace your writing self and find outlets to share it with readers. Do you have any advice for others who have felt (or are just now feeling) that itch to write?
PRM: If the itch is for writing for children, I’d say join SCBWI, the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. That was one of the best things I ever did. It’s where I found my wonderful critique group, and where I’ve been able to participate in conferences to learn from other authors, editors, agents, and publishing professionals. Without the conferences and my wonderful writers group, The TaleBlazers, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
Thank you, Peggy. It’s been delightful to virtually meet you here and learn more about your own voyage to sharing these amazing stories.
I urge readers to request this book at your library or independent bookstore. Share the story on social media and help others learn about it. When the problems of the world loom so overwhelming that hopelessness rears its head, books like this one remind us that problems are solved one person at a time.
For more about the early days of this organization, check out another picture book from Brethern Press, FAITH, THE COW, written by Susan Bame Hoover and illustrated by Maggie Sykora.
Gayle Rosengren, author of COLD WAR ON MAPLEWOOD STREET, is a Wisconsin writer and a friend. This book was released in October to coincide with the anniversary date of the Cuban missile crisis and the current efforts (at that time) to re-establish diplomatic relations between the USA and Cuba.
Gayle described her book and some of the forces behind her writing of it in this post on Literary Rambles blog near the date of its release.I enjoy Gayle’s books and have no doubt that readers of any age will also become fans. She was kind enough to take time away from her writing to answer a few questions for our readers here.
SB: I loved the concept for COLD WAR ON MAPLEWOOD STREET when I first heard about it, and I loved the story even more since reading it last fall.
I, too, was a tween during the Cuban Missile crisis and remember it vividly. For people who lived through it, those years don’t feel like history, but for young readers, it easily qualifies- that was half a century ago. How would you summarize a child’s perspective on what the Cold War was all about, apart from the actual Cuban Missile Crisis?
Gayle: I think my understanding of the Cold War as a child is pretty well summed up by a popular slogan of that decade: “Better dead than red.” I remember quite clearly thinking then that there must be something wrong with me because if I had to choose between communism (whatever that even was) and death, you can bet I would choose communism! But the slogan effectively conveyed the message that the Russians (or Soviets) and communism were to be feared.
And that fear was epitomized in the threat of a nuclear attack.We had the atomic bomb, but so did the Russians.In fact, the United States and the Soviet Union had so many atomic bombs and even more powerful nuclear bombs that we were not only capable of destroying each other but of taking the rest of the world down with us.
I remember getting nervous every time I stumbled on a TV news spot of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.I don’t think he was ever smiling. He was either scowling, shouting, or on one amazing occasion (at the UN) furiously waving his shoe! These images stirred up the fear that was always smoldering inside me, ready to blaze up given the slightest encouragement. Was Premier Khrushchev’s anger a prelude to World War III?Was he going to give the order to attack us?I think it’s fair to say that children of the Cold War era grew up under a veritable mushroom cloud of fear.
SB: I remember having many of those same feelings and experiences, Gayle. During the Cold War a generation (or more) of children grew up in the shadow of possible nuclear attacks. Now an entire generation of children since September 11th have lived their lives with ongoing wars in the background. What parallels and contrasts do you see in the effects on young people living in today’s world?
Gayle: Although the fear of a nuclear attack always loomed over youngsters during the Cold War, the film footage of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were our only visuals of it.They were horrific and created a cloud of fear that hung over us ever after, but they had happened years before and far away, and, fortunately for us, we didn’t see those films often.It was only during the week of the Cuban Missile Crisis that the cloud dropped so low and clung so tightly that it was impossible not to recall those terrible images.Then fear became a clock tick-tick-ticking ominously in the background of our days—would this second, or perhaps this one, be our last before the sky exploded? By contrast, young people today are confronted with a daily barrage of graphic horrors in films, newscasts and videos both online and on TV.If they want to badly enough, they can even watch actual beheadings! The attacks on September 11th stripped away forever the feeling that we are safe.The attacks that have followed only serve to confirm the likelihood of more in the future. Given everything, I think it must be far more frightening to grow up in today’s world than it was during the Cold War.
SB: Well said, Gayle. Let’s turn from global matters to your very personal process of writing. In other interviews you’ve said that you wrote the first draft of this story many years earlier, and it has changed focus and point of view in subsequent rewrites. Can you pinpoint anything(s) that led you to those changed perspectives?
Gayle: The horrific school shooting in Sandy Hook was the primary influence on my final draft. As frightening as potential ISIS attacks may be, I can’t help feeling that children today must have an even greater fear of harm befalling them in what should be a place second only to their own homes in terms of safety–their school. Instead of air raid drills, they now practice lockdown drills—hiding in locked rooms and closets from potential intruders bearing guns and wanting to hurt them. How terrifying must that be for students of any age but especially those in early elementary grades? This kind of terror changed my goal for Cold War from simply being a story about what should be an unforgettable event in our past, to being a book I hoped would also speak to children about growing up in our frightening present.
I wanted to write a book that talked about fear, but in a way that would not frighten my readers. I hoped that by using the Cuban Missile Crisis—an event far removed from them—I could accomplish this. My theme was the importance of communication in every significant relationship: from President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev as world leaders, to Mr. and Mrs. Waterman as spouses, to Joanna and Sam and their mother as members of a family.
SB: Your main character, Joanna, is in a battle within herself that is as deep and difficult as the political one hanging over their heads. You did a masterful job of blending the tension of the world stage with the tension of her feelings about her brother Sam. Was that a part of the story from the beginning or did you discover it along the way?
Gayle: The breakdown of Joanna’s communication with Sam was always at the center of my vision for this story about the Cuban Missile Crisis.I wanted their relationship to be the heart of it, reflecting the results of broken promises on the world stage. I also wanted her love for Sam to be her personal connection to the crisis, a source of ever-increasing tension and ever-changing emotions toward him—adoration, anger, guilt and fear.
SB: You certainly accomplished all that and more. What do you most hope readers will take away from this book?
Gayle: I hoped readers would take away at least these two things:
First, words can be stronger than weapons.I was disturbed when I realized how many adults of today—those born in the sixties and later—didn’t have a clue about what the Cuban Missile Crisis even was!And most of the others seemed to view it as a kind of false alarm. After all, nothing happened in the end, right?But as far as I’m concerned, the fact that “nothing happened” is the most important takeaway from this event. President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev talked.They negotiated.And by using words instead of weapons, World War III was averted.How can this not be one of the core lessons taught in social studies classes?
Second, I wanted to extend a metaphorically comforting hand to children growing up today under very different but equally frightening clouds of terror.In Cold War on Maplewood Street much of the angst and damage that resulted could have been avoided or significantly reduced by better communication.I used this as a vehicle for talking about unhealthy ways versus healthy ways to deal with fear or worry.When I give presentations at schools, I show visuals of one youngster hiding under his covers, and another one holding her stomach, as examples of unhealthy reactions to fear and worry, and I contrast them with the image of a young person confiding in an adult and being reassured.We always feel better after voicing our fears, and having someone we trust help us to put them in perspective adds even more comfort.
“Speak up! Communicate!” is the message I emphasize at my school visits.We may not be able to eliminate the sources of all our fears, but we can minimize their negative impact on our lives by talking about them with a parent, teacher, or other trusted adult.
SB: That’s a message we could all learn from and one that is worth sharing far and wide. Has anything surprised you about reader-reactions to this book?
Gayle: One of the things that surprises me most when I visit schools and children ask me questions about Cold War on Maplewood Street, is how many of them ask about Sam, wanting to know if he “is all right.”I reassure them that yes, Sam came out of the crisis unhurt, but their question reminds me of how very real the characters and their stories can be to middle grade readers–which quite happily reaffirms the reason why I write for them!
SB: Will you tell our readers a bit about your current projects?
Gayle: I just sent my latest manuscript off to my agent and am eagerly awaiting his response to it.It’s a bit different than my first two books in that the historical setting is more recent, and, while it is a family story, as both previous books are, it’s also a survival story seen from the alternating points of view of a brother and sister.Beyond that, I’m keeping mum (I’m a bit superstitious!) until I know it’s going to be published.Fingers crossed!
Well, if it doesn’t fly in the face of your superstitions, I’ll wish you the best of luck and look forward to reading your latest when it finds its publishing home. Your stories and characters stay with me and I’m sure the newest creations will be just as memorable.
Thank you, Gayle, for participating in this interview and for creating books that open doors to the past. You invite readers of any age to experience vicariously the similarities and differences of life in another time and to connect what they’ve discovered with their current lives.
Readers who want to know more about Gayle, her books, appearances, and future publications can learn more at her website.
or follow her on Twitter @GayleRosengren or FaceBook.
When awards season is just warming up, some books released earlier may slip from memory as the year winds down. One title (from 2016) that merits renewed attention when committees begin their discussions is Sweet Home Alaska, released in February, 2016 and reviewed below this interview.
Carole Estby Dagg is the author of SWEET HOME ALASKA. Her website tag is “Writing About History as Ordinary People Lived It.”After reading and reviewing this book I had many questions about how this subject and these characters came into her writing life.Carole responded to my interview questions and explored her approach to writing this entertaining book about obscure Alaskan history.
SB: Welcome, Carole. You’ve been busy since the release of SWEET HOME ALASKA in February, including a return to Alaska for some launch festivities. You’ve said that research for SWEET HOME ALASKA involved travel. How did that approach apply to this book?
CED: My first trip to Palmer, the site of SWEET HOME ALASKA, was to see the cabin my son bought on the outskirts of town. He drove me around the valley, pointing out a barn that had survived from colony days, and dropped me off at the Palmer Library, where I could take notes from the books of recollections of old-timers who came up with their families as part of the project.
Tigger is my daughter-in-law’s cat,but Tigger died while I was writing SWEET HOME ALASKA, so I named Terpsichore’s cat in her honor.
SB: Your story begins in Wisconsin during the depression. What are your connections with Wisconsin? Why was it your choice as a setting for Terpsichore’s family origins?
CED: I don’t have a personal connection with Wisconsin, but I wanted my fictional character, Terpsichore Johnson, to start her story in the same state as Laura Ingalls Wilder in her first book, Little House in the Big Woods.Besides setting up the parallel between Laura and Terpsichore, I could point out the changes between Laura’s ‘big woods’ and the woods sixty years later that had been completely logged over by Terpsichore’s time.
SB: Music is central to this family, far beyond Terpsichore’s name. Musical talent (or a lack of it) is a driving force in her life. Where do you fall in the talent or non/talent continuum when it comes to music, and how did music become such an important element in your characters’ lives?
CED: My mother filled our house with music. We dressed up in her long swirly skirts and beads and danced to her 78 records of gypsy violins. Like Terpsichore’s mother, she was an excellent pianist and her singing in the local USO during WWII introduced her to my dad, who wasn’t musical himself but knew a good thing when he heard it. As I lay in bed at night, I listened to my mother relaxing at the piano with lively ragtime music.
Although they later put music aside to become noted researchers and academics, my two younger sisters were both musically gifted. While still in their teens, one sang with George Shangrow’s Seattle Chamber Singers and the other played violin in the Bellingham Symphony Orchestra.
I did not inherit my mother’s gifts.I took piano lessons for six years, but learned only enough to appreciate good playing in others. I liked to sing, but in college I was in the chorus that did not require auditions, just enthusiasm.
One of the things I remembered as a kid reading the Little House books was Pa’s fiddle and the words of songs that were popular in Laura’s family. If Terpsichore was to be a twentieth-century pioneer like her hero, Laura Ingalls, her family had to have music too.
SB: Many of the economic recovery programs of the 1930’s are well known. FDR’s Matanuska, Alaska was intended to relocate destitute farm families to a community in Alaska with a plan to provide jobs for others who would help build and maintain that new community. What surprised you most about it?
CED: That I had never heard of it!
SB: Neither had I! You’ve visited there and have family living there now. How does the spirit of the people living there today compare to your characters’ approach to life at that time?
CED: My Alaska friends are not farmers, but they still have the urge to be self-reliant. They have fish camps where they catch and can, freeze, or vacuum pack enough salmon to last their families the rest of the year. They hunt deer and caribou to fill their freezers. They have their own organic vegetable gardens and can whatever they don’t eat in season.
SB: You’ve written about your “immersion” approach to story and character development (Cooking, sewing, and collecting artifacts related to your research).
Are you a natural collector or did this emerge as you launched your writing career.
CED: I wasn’t so much a collector of things (with the exception of books) but of experiences. When I went through my Egyptology phase at about Terpsichore’s age, I talked my father into taking me to a museum where I could see a real mummy in its sarcophagus. As an adult, I climbed on the back of a camel to ride among the great pyramids, crept through King Tut’s tomb, and visited Cairo to see the King Tut treasures.
My immersion approach isn’t about the things themselves, but creating the experience of wearing things, seeing and handling things, and learning skills my characters would have learned. Like Lord Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, I was interested in ‘real history’ of the day-to-day lives of people in other times and places.
SB: Did any of the research or writing for this book reveal potential new stories to tell?
CED: Although I have a banker’s box full of notes I did not use for Sweet Home Alaska, I feel like I’ve skimmed off the best stuff and a sequel would be a let-down. Like changing majors in college, I’m off on a completely different subject now, the Pig War in the San Juan Islands of the mid-1800’s.
SB: Thank you, Carole, for sharing your approach to this book, and your research. I appreciate you taking time from your writing and travels to share your personal stories about SWEET HOME ALASKA. As various organizations consider outstanding middle grade novels for 2016 awards, I certainly expect Sweet Home Alaska to be receiving lots of attention.
Here’s what I wrote about this historical novel on GOODREADS.
This story begins in depression-era Wisconsin but moves quickly to a “big dreams” adventure and challenge in Alaska. From the moment we meet her, Terpsichore (Terp-SICK-uh ree) let’s readers know what she thinks, cares about, and fears. She personifies the pre-teen tension between exuberant confidence and anxious helplessness.
This would pair well with Gayle Rosengren’s WHAT THE MOON SAID, another depression era story with a Wisconsin setting but an entirely different story arc. A discussion of both stories, main characters, and circumstances would open doors to deep understanding of the economic and political realities of America in the 1930s.
Update on this post, as of July, 2019: SWEET HOME ALASKA received awards from Junior Library Guild for the print novel and for the audio book. To learn even more about it, including teaching resources, check this link at TeachingBooks.net.
Recently my editor wrote about his process while working on Odin’s Promise. In the midst of the many emotions I’ve had during this road to publication of my debut novel, the one emotion that has never wavered is gratitude. Phil’s contribution to this ride began several years ago, long before Odin’s Promise was even written. I sought his professional advice on an entirely different cast of characters telling a very different story, even though it, too, was set in Ytre Arna. His interest, encouragement , and writing suggestions allowed me to believe that I could do something with my memories and research.
That highly professional advice combined with that of others, with additional research, and with my work to develop the craft of writing to create Mari’s and Odin’s story. I knew of his appreciation for Scandinavian culture and history, as well as his work with other middle grade historical novels I admire. I also knew of his wide-ranging expertise as an editor of both fiction and non-fiction text. I took a shot on Odin’s Promise being “entirely new” enough to submit it to Phil.
I’m so grateful that he saw in it, and in me, something worthy of his investment of time and skill.
I don’t know about you, but I read the author notes, acknowledgements and all other “extra” content in books. I view them as the “director’s cut” portion of the book, a backstage peek at the creation process. In every case the authors’ statements about their editors’ contributions have made me eager for the experience. This suggests only a glimpse of the thorough investment Phil makes in his writers, which has made my first novel publishing experience ideal.
From day one his approach has been collaborative, constructive, and inevitably resulted in ODIN’S PROMISE becoming a stronger, better story.
Phil has already read and edited the acknowledgements I wrote for Odin’s Promise, so this isn’t the first time he’ll read my praise and thanks for his role in this book. It bears repeating here: thank you so much, Phil. Or, as they say in Norwegian,