Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Blog Tour: Odin's Promise: Interview with author Sandy Brehl

Author Sandy Brehl

I am delighted to participate in the blog tour for an exciting new historical fiction novel for middle-grade readers, Odin's Promise:  A Novel of Norway, by author Sandy Brehl.  Sandy kindly consented to answer a number of questions about her book for this blog.

Q:  World War II continues to supply inspiration for movies, television, adult books, and children's books, with no signs that interest in the war is abating as it becomes part of the more distant past for today's young people.  How would you explain the continued fascination with this conflict?

A:  It’s true that WWII has a sustained interest among young readers and their families, too. I would have thought with our many recent years of war that it would not be the case. Despite our war-weary society, World War II seems to hold a unique place in the hearts of even the youngest. Perhaps it’s seen as that one war when, despite graphic horrors and destruction, loss of lives, and even documented atrocities, good really overcame evil. It was also followed by world-unifying efforts, like support for refugees, restoration of cities, and the creation of the United Nations. Even if young people aren’t aware of those aspects, they seem to understand that WWII has an aura of decency and validity that so many other conflicts lack.The unequivocal ruthlessness of Hitler, Japan, and Mussolini versus a world united not only in self-defense but in the name of freedom makes it a sort of “poster child” for what a “good war” would be. Few before or since have had such a clear mission.

Q:  What inspires you to write historical fiction for young people?  

A:  First, I enjoy reading historical fiction, for all ages. In this case specific stories I heard about the war years while visiting Norway took root in my mind and wouldn’t let go. The research that ensued made me eager to discover and tell this story. I write contemporary middle grade novels, too, and picture book texts, but several historical fiction stories have sprouted “seedlings” in my mind from stories my parents, grandparents, and even local characters have shared. I’ve begun to trust that a time will come when each will grow to harvest when the time is right.

Q:  Can you tell us a little bit about why you decided to set a story in Norway at this time and how you researched this difficult time in their history?

A:  First, I’m not Norwegian. A good friend is the daughter of a Norwegian immigrant, though, and she invited me to travel with her to her father’s home village. On that first trip I fell in love with the country- the people, the landscape, the values, the lifestyle. We stayed with her family on that visit and another. I experienced such genuine hospitality, good humor,generosity, and national pride of the purest type that I felt at home there immediately. Pictures and stories they shared focused on their family before, during, and after the war years. One particular story of resistance seemed like a book waiting to be written. Despite my best efforts over several decades, that story couldn’t seem to find its footing. Revisions, critiques, and shifts in genre, target audience, or focus weren’t enough to bring success. My readings and research into that era continued until I finally found one work by a Norwegian scholar, Stokker. It featured journal entries from the war years, including some by children Mari’s age. That’s when those earlier readings, writings, and research found their way into Mari and her family. The story incorporates many documented details of underground resistance, but the characters are all fictional.

Photo of coastal Bergen,Norway--the village where the book takes place is on the other side of the mountains

Q:  What made you decide to put a dog, Odin, at the center of your novel?  

Norwegian Elkhound
A:  I’ve had dogs most of my life, and while I was in Norway I saw how much dogs are integral members of families there. When I began to imagine Mari’s role in her family as a shy youngest child, it was the most natural thing in the world for her to have a companion dog. I knew her story and circumstances would require her to grow and change, to discover her strengths and define herself as an individual. Odin and his loyalty to the family played an essential part in that process. I never had an elkhound, but the more I learned about the breed, its intelligence and courage, and its role as a national breed, the more certain I was that Odin was the best friend Mari could ever have.

Q:  I especially liked the way your novel does not portray the Nazis as black and white or 100% evil.  Was it important to you to show that some of the Nazi soldiers may have been young men not very different from the Norwegian young men of the village of Ytre Arna, where Odin's Promise is set?

Ytre Arna, mid-20th century (from the collection of Knut Naevdal and the Ytre Arna Historielag (Museum)

A:  Although I didn’t write this to convey a “message”, it was very important to me to avoid stereotyping any of the characters. That includes the villagers who cooperated with the Nazi occupiers. We can’t always choose the circumstances of our lives, yet we can make conscious choices about how we deal with them. The hard truth is that those choices are seldom clear-cut, black-and-white, yes-or-no. Mari’s journey involves her growing recognition of this challenging truth.

Q:  With the adoption of the Common Core, do you think that historical fiction will become more popular as a genre?

A: I hope so, just as I hope quality literature becomes a more central part of every subject. My concern is less with the standards than with the emphasis on high-stakes testing. When testing drives the curriculum, all too often school districts adopt various packaged materials, many of which are produced by the testing publishers themselves. Authentic, engaging, rich literature (novels, non-fiction, picture books) should be used in every subject area, and historical fiction can play a major role in helping young people not just learn to read, but to love reading.

Q:  In addition to publishing this novel, you blog about picture books at Unpacking the Power of Picture Books.  Can you share with us a little about your work with picture books?

A:  I spent nearly forty years as an elementary teacher, working in classrooms and with special needs students, from pre-school to middle grade. Whenever someone hears you are a teacher they ask, “What do you teach?” At the risk of sounding like a smart-mouth I would always answer “Kids!” then quickly explain that I regularly changed grade levels, subjects, and focus groups because I loved working with kids at all the different stages of their young lives. At every age or grade it’s the child I teach, not the subject. These changes allowed me to read, share, and explore a wide array of children’s literature. I loved helping established readers rediscover the depth and richness of picture books, those “baby books” they thought they had outgrown. I was writing throughout those years, mainly in summer.  That included academic articles on ways picture books work for all ages to improve literacy and comprehension. When I retired a few years ago it was to read, write, and teach, but this time to teach adults instead of kids. I teach professional development workshops for teachers, childcare workers, and librarians on the power of picture books to develop the highest quality readers and thinkers. I also do presentations on this topic for reading conferences.Many of the titles I share in those workshops are non-fiction and historical fiction.

Q:  Can you share with us what books are on your nightstand or e-reader?

A:  I always have a half-dozen or more picture books in a stack, to add reviews on Goodreads or use them for my blogs. That stack turns over every week or so, but as I write this it includes: God Got A Dog, by Cynthia Rylant and Marla Frazee; Nest, by Jorey Hurley; Founding Mothers, by Cokie Roberts with illustrations by Diane Goode; Ezra Jack Keats:A Biography with Illustrations, by Dean Engel and Florence B. Freedman; A Dance Like Starlight, by Christy Dempsey and Floyd Cooper, and A Home For Mr. Emerson, by Barbara Kerley and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. In the MG category I just finished: From Norvelt to Nowhere by Jack Gantos and Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman. Now reading, or waiting in the stack, are: The Year We Were Famous by Carole Estby Dagg, Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord; Seven Stories Up, by Laurel Snyder, Sure Signs of Crazy, by Karen Harrington, Slob, by Ellen Potter, and A Snicker of Magic.

Thanks so much, Sandy, for your thoughtful responses!


Sandy Brehl said...

Thank YOU, Margo. These questions were really interesting and allowed me to share quite a bit about my writing and teaching processes. It was a pleasure to join you here.

Cathy Fraser said...

This book looks fantastic, I am an avid reader of historical fiction and my favorite reads are from a more recent era so this is perfect for me! On top of my tbr pile it goes! I am currently reading Strange Birth, it's set in the 1950's and is awesome. By Julian Stone, for it's info. Great reads out there right now! Good to see!