Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Winter is Coming! Happy Book Birthday to Michelle Houts!

WINTER is coming…

If the doggiest dog days of summer have just set in where you are (here in Ohio, it’s been stinking hot!), it might be hard to imagine, but summer will turn to fall. And, eventually, fall always gives way to winter. It’s the order of things. It’s just the way it happens.

Today, September 9th, my third middle grade novel releases. WINTERFROST (Candlewick Press) is a tale that ruminated for more than 20 years in this author’s brain. It has its origins in Danish folklore and modern tradition. It comes from stories told to me as a young American visitor to an enchanted Scandinavian county and from pictures and legends sent across oceans for many years to follow.

Here’s the folklore: On Christmas Eve, it is customary, required even, to set a steaming bowl of rice pudding in the barn for the nisse, a small gnome-like being who resides on the Danish farm, looking after the animals and the family. Humble servants, nisse require very little to be happy. The rice pudding is enough.

Here’s the modern tradition:  The Danish believe we all need fresh air. Every day. Everyone needs fresh air in their lungs. No matter how old. No matter how young. No matter how cold. Even babies nap outdoors.

My friend sent me this picture a few years ago.

And here’s where the two collide:   As authors, especially authors of books for children, it’s our right responsibility to ask “What if…?” What if a Danish family forgot to leave their nisse rice pudding on Christmas Eve? What could happen? What if a baby left out to nap disappeared while peacefully slumbering? What if that baby were in the care of her sister?  How would she find the baby? Where would she look? Because even in the white of winter, the forest can be so dark. What if…
And here’s the result:

I hope many young readers will follow Bettina into the forest as she searches for her baby sister in a blur of frost and leaves and roots and cider in a world she barely believes exists.
And, I hope aspiring writers will follow me to a place where we sit ourselves down, roll up our sleeves, and answer those unanswered “what ifs.”
Because the worst question I can think of is “What if we didn't tell the tales that knock on our hearts and beg to be told? What if…?”


Michelle Houts is the author of three middle grade fiction novels and one nonfiction, a biography coming in October 2014. She lives and plays on a family farm in Ohio.  Michelle dreams of returning to Denmark at Christmastime so she can show her gratitude to the nisse with a warm bowl of rice pudding.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Historical Fiction and Girls of Gettysburg ~ Bobbi Miller

At the beginning of this month, our own Bobbi Miller's wonderful book, The Girls of Gettysburg, was released. This historical fiction middle-grade masterpiece has gotten fantastic reviews already! Bobbi was generous enough to share her insight on just what a novelty historical fiction truly is, as well as introduce us to who the Girls of Gettysburg were. 
 Take it away, Bobbi!

One hundred fifty one years ago, twelve thousand Confederate forces gathered along Seminary Ridge. Almost a mile away, at the end of an open field, a copse of trees marked the Union line standing firm on Cemetery Ridge. When the signal was given, the men marched across the field. The line had advanced less than two hundred yards when the federals sent shell after shell howling into their midst. Boom! Men fell legless, headless, armless, black with burns and red with blood. Still they marched on across that field.

And in the middle of this gruesome battle, the bloodiest of the Civil War, were The Girls of Gettysburg…

As I was researching another book, I came across a small newspaper article dated from 1863.  It told of a Union soldier on burial duty, following the Battle at Gettysburg, coming upon a shocking find: the body of a female Confederate soldier. It was shocking because she was disguised as a boy. At the time, everyone believed that girls were not strong enough to do any soldiering; they were too weak, too pure, too pious to be around roughhousing boys. It was against the law for girls to enlist. This girl carried no papers, so he could not identify her. She was buried in an unmarked grave. A Union general noted her presence at the bottom of his report, stating “one female (private) in rebel uniform.” The note became her epitaph. I decided I was going to write her story.

Historical fiction is the coming together of two opposing elements: fact and fiction. As we know, it isn’t easy to define historical fiction. For some, historical fiction is first fiction, and therefore anything goes. Others condemn this blending.  Yet, nothing about history is obvious, and facts are often open to interpretation. Once upon a time, it was considered factual that the world was flat, that blood-letting was the proper way of treating disease, that women were emotionally and physically incapable of rational thought.  In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but he didn’t discover America.  Some would say he was less an explorer and more of a conqueror. History tends to be written by those who survived it. As such, no history is without its bias.

So when I tackled the battle of Gettysburg as the focus of this new novel, I had to first get the facts right. This was a daunting task because no other battle has been studied so thoroughly. As such, I researched extensively, reading diaries, personal accounts, regimental histories, military reports. But then, there’s the emotional truth, the story behind the facts.  

Historical fiction makes the facts matter to the reader. If I didn’t get this right, creating characters true to their time and place, the readers won’t care about the facts. For me, the only way to discover this emotional truth was to walk the battlefield of Gettysburg, and witness that landscape where my characters lived over one hundred and fifty years ago. I traveled to Gettysburg four times, walking the battlefield and talking to re-enactors and the park rangers.

David McCullough once said,  “We are raising a generation of young Americans who are by-and-large historically illiterate…The textbooks are dreary, they’re done by committee, they’re often hilariously politically correct and they’re not doing any good. [But] there are wonderful books, past and present. There is literature in history.”   Avi, an award-winning master of the genre, once said that some historical fiction stays close to the known facts, while others are little more than costume drama. But facts do not make a story. Ultimately, what is most important is the story, and the characters, according to Avi. “Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction makes truth less a stranger.”

The literary process that defines historical fiction allows readers to connect emotionally to historical figures and events. It introduces readers to different points of view. As Tarry Lindquist (1995) said, historical fiction “puts people back into history.” While textbooks tend to underscore coverage, this lacks depth, and as a result, “individuals—no matter how famous or important—are reduced to a few sentences…Good historical fiction presents individuals as they are, neither good nor bad.”

Historical fiction helps young readers develop a feeling for a living past, illustrating the continuity of life, according to Karen Cushman. Historical fiction, “like all good history, demonstrates how history is made up of the decisions and actions of individuals and that the future will be made up of our decisions and actions.”

The best historical fiction “brings both story and history to life,” said Janet Fox (Faithful, 2010). Well-researched and well-written historical fiction is packed with—but not burdened by—the details. “In the best historical fiction, story trumps truth, because story is truth: we are all protagonists of our own stories.”