Thursday, February 16, 2012

Author Interview: Laurie Calkhoven, author of Boys of Wartime series

Photo copyright 2010 by Elyse Fradkin
I'm so pleased to welcome to The Fourth Musketeer today Laurie Calkhoven, author of The Boys of Wartime series, among other books for young people.  The third volume in this series, Michael at the Invasion of France, 1943, has just been published by Dial.

Q:  Please tell us what inspired you to write your series Boys of Wartime.

A:  I got the idea for the first novel in the series, Daniel at the Siege of Boston, 1776, while I was researching a biography of George Washington. I wondered what life was like for the people stuck in the city for nearly a year, having to rely on shipments from England for food and other necessities. It was a tense, difficult time, and a lot happened in that year. It began with the Battles of Lexington and Concord and included the Battle of Bunker Hill. The Continental Congress began talking about declaring independence and put George Washington in command of the army. I started to do a little digging, and soon I had a character whispering in my ear.

But that’s all I had—an idea and a character. I was busy writing other things and didn’t have time to get more than a few sentences down on paper. Then an editor at the Penguin Young Readers Group asked me what I was working on, and I mentioned my idea. He didn’t seem interested, but a few weeks later he called and asked me to put together a proposal for that book and more—stories about boys in wartime. I scrambled and came up with a few ideas, and I had a deal very quickly after that.

Q:  So far, the novels in the series have been set during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II. Do you have other volumes in the series on the drawing board, and when will they be set?

A:  I’d love to write more Boys of Wartime novels. The original plan called for a World War I novel, but World War II was more compelling so I wrote that book first. Then I got busy with other books, including a just-published nonfiction book called I Grew Up to be President and contemporary novels for American Girl’s Innerstar University series. But now I’m on the lookout for a new story. 

Q:  Can you tell us a little about your research process for these historical novels?

A:  My process has been a little different for each book. With Daniel, I knew what my focus would be from the outset, so then it was a matter of finding out everything I could about what lead up to the Siege of Boston and what day-to-day life was like during that year. I read general histories of the time period, of course, but I really focused on first-person accounts to give me a sense of how people spoke, what they ate, what they wore, and how spies of the day operated.

For the next two books in the series, Will at the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863 and Michael at the Invasion of France, 1943, I started reading very broadly about the time period, looking for an aspect of the war that intrigued me. I spend close to a year doing research before I even begin writing, so it has to be a subject I love—something I want to spend a lot of time with.

The Battle of Gettysburg captured my attention because it was such a pivotal battle in the war, and again I found myself wondering what life was like for the people of the town. Control of Gettysburg changed hands four times very quickly. For a time, one home was the battle’s front lines. Confederate soldiers were on the back porch and Union soldiers were on the front. They shot at each other through the windows while the family crouched in the basement.

Once I settled on that battle as the basis of my novel, I turned to primary sources again. Luckily, many of the townspeople recorded their stories. I also visited Gettysburg more than once. A lot of the Civil War buildings are still standing. I was able to walk the streets, poke my fingers into bullet holes, and stand under the shade of trees that witnessed the battle. That was invaluable.

I knew that my World War II novel would be about a boy in the French Resistance. The French Resistance has always captured my imagination. Again, I started with very broad research. I hadn’t known about the secret networks that helped downed American and British airmen make their way across France and into Spain so that they could rejoin the war effort, and as soon as I read about those underground railroads, I knew that’s what my story would about. There are some great recent nonfiction books about the escape lines, but many of the airmen put their experiences down on paper, too. Once again, primary sources proved to be the most useful in getting the details right.

Q:  One of the aspects of Michael at the Invasion of France that I really enjoyed was that you focused on a little known aspect of the war: the Allied pilots who were shot down over France and how they were helped to freedom by resistance fighters. What made you want to tell this particular part of the story of World War II to young readers?

A:  What really struck me about this aspect of the war was how many young people were involved in the escape lines, not just in France, but in Belgium and Holland, too. Boys were able to move about much more freely than men. And young woman often pretended to be taking walks with their sweethearts when they were, in fact, guiding frightened young men to train stations or safe houses. Whole families got involved in feeding, clothing, and hiding airmen at great personal risk. Nazi punishment was swift and severe. Men were shot by a firing squad. Woman and children were sent to concentration camps. Most of these people never got any credit for the dangerous work they did. Their names are, for the most part, lost to history.

Q:  Laurie, you had a long career in children's publishing at Scholastic and Book-of-the-Month Club before moving to writing. You've published a wide variety of books, from The Boys of Wartime to American Girl quiz books to series nonfiction on American presidents to the new choose-your-own-ending American Girl series, Innerstar University. Is there a genre that's particularly close to your heart?

A:  Oh no, that’s like asking me to choose a favorite book! I love all kinds of writing. Writing nonfiction gives me a chance to poke around into areas that I’m interested in and learn new things. Fiction allows me to make stuff up—to create characters and throw all kinds of obstacles at them. Writing historical fiction gives me a chance to do both—research and make stuff up—so I guess I’d have to lean toward that as a favorite genre.

 Q:  Can you share with us some of the titles that are current on your nightstand (or e-reader?)? And who are some children's authors whose books you particularly admire, especially in historical fiction?

A:  I have a towering pile of books on my nightstand. Ruta Speetys’s Between Shades of Gray, set in Soviet Russia in 1941 is up next. And I want to catch up on the all the Newbery and Printz award winners I haven’t read yet.

There are so many novelists I admire. Kekla Magoon’s brave look at the Black Panthers and the Civil Rights movement, Rock and the River, is one of my favorites and I know there’s a sequel coming called Fire in the Streets. Avi’s City of Orphans was a recent favorite and I’m looking forward to reading Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. I always look forward to a new Richard Peck historical novel.

I grew up on the Little House books, so I think I can safely say that Laura Ingalls Wilder is responsible for my love of historical fiction. I loved them so much that I wanted to be a pioneer. I knew I was born too late to join a wagon train, but I thought I might help colonize a new planet! Maybe someday.

Thanks for such interesting questions.

Q:  And thanks to you for taking the time to come to visit my blog!

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