Sunday, April 13, 2014

Looking for the History in Historical Fiction

When presenting to students and teachers about my book, The Ballad of Jessie Pearl, I always mention Jim Murphy's non-fiction title, Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never Ending Search for a Cure. So it was with great interest that I read a blog post by Lisa Storm Fink called Looking for the History in Historical Fiction: An Epidemic for Reading.

Lisa shares ways teachers can use historical fiction and nonfiction titles about communicable diseases in the classroom. I particularly like that she offers two attachments:

  1. Questions to Consider While Reading Historical Fiction and
  2. A List of Applicable Titles.
Several more books about infectious diseases have been written since the list in number two was compiled. I would suggest teachers also consider the following:

1. Winnie's War by Jennie Moss, (Spanish Influenza).

2. Blue and its sequel Comfort by Joyce Moyer Hostetter, (Polio).

3. The Ballad of Jessie Pearl by Shannon Hitchcock, (Tuberculosis).

4. Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure by Jim Murphy.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The ALAN Review: A New Voice In Historical Fiction

Here's a selfie of me holding the Winter 2014 issue of The ALAN Review:

On pages 62-65 is an article about me called, "Shannon Hitchcock: A New Voice in Historical Fiction." The article was written by KaaVonia Hinton, a professor at Old Dominion University. KaaVonia had blogged about THE BALLAD OF JESSIE PEARL shortly after it was published and that led to a subsequent interview.

It's very exciting for me when teachers recognize the history in my book and find ways to use it in the classroom. A big thank you to KaaVonia for introducing JESSIE to the ALAN community!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

North Carolina Reading Association Conference 2014

On March 18th, I led a workshop at NCRA called, "A Writer's Toolbox and How to Apply It In the Classroom." Here's the official description:

See inside author Shannon Hitchcock's Writer's Toolbox. Learn how to use an idea folder, writing prompts, and even an egg timer to engage your students. Shannon will touch on all parts of the writing process: idea generation, first drafts, revision, fact checking, proofreading, and how to be a successful critique partner. She will share how professional writers approach these tasks and how those strategies can be adapted for the classroom.

I also used NCRA as a learning and networking opportunity. I attended a workshop taught by Tammy Powell, an educational/historical consultant, titled "Brown Bagging History: Not Your Typical Lunch." Tammy gave each participant a brown lunch bag. Inside were items linked to NC history: a picture of the Shackleford wild horses, carrots, representing Carrot Island, seashells etc. Tammy shared how these brown bags pique students curiosity and get them interested in researching and writing about history. I have since corresponded with Tammy and sent her a copy of The Ballad of Jessie Pearl. Maybe there is some synergy between my historical fiction set in North Carolina and Tammy's work. Only time will tell.

Another favorite workshop was "Exploring Untold Stories of WWII through Text Sets," taught by grad student, Emily Roderique and Dr. Jeanne Swafford both from UNC Wilmington. A text set is a collection of resources, (articles, photographs, brochures, websites etc), focused on a common topic, theme, or anchor text. Emily says text sets have some great advantages:
  1. They give reluctant readers access to a variety of interesting texts and texts of varying levels of difficulty.
  2. Text sets foster collaboration among teachers, (cross-disciplinary projects).
Emily has developed text sets using Between Shades of Gray and Bomb as anchor texts. I introduced myself to Emily afterward and she agreed to help me develop a text set for The Ballad of Jessie Pearl. That should be a great learning experience for me and hopefully a marketing tool to use with teachers as well.

I had a wonderful time at NCRA: presenting, learning, and networking. An author can glean lots of useful information hanging out with teachers and librarians. I hope to participate again next year. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

RIP Cynthia Chapman Willis

My dear friend and critique partner, Cynthia Chapman Willis died on March 3rd. I am heartbroken. For those of you who didn't know Cindy, it's not too late to get to know her. She left behind two wonderful novels, Dog Gone and Buck Fever. Both showcase Cindy's love of animals and her big heart. The following video shows Cindy during happier days, just after the release of her first novel:

Cindy worked with me every step of the way on my debut novel, The Ballad of Jessie Pearl. That novel is about a young woman wasting away from tuberculosis. She grows weak and has difficulty breathing. It's ironic that lung cancer caused many of those same symptoms in Cindy herself.

The morning after Cindy died, I went to the gym. I was pushing myself hard, but all I could think about was that Cindy would never move again. It was much like this passage from The Ballad of Jessie Pearl:

I grab an old coat that Tom outgrew and let myself out the back door. The wind makes a moaning sound like it's grieving too. I whistle for Patches and race down the dirt road. Carrie will never move again, and knowing that pushes me to run for both of us.

I have corresponded with Cindy almost daily for the past ten years. I keep expecting an email to pop up in my inbox. It doesn't seem real that she's gone. Jessie Pearl experienced those same emotions when her sister died:

I've seen Carrie every day of my life, but after tomorrow I'll never see her again. Poof--she'll be gone. I can't even conceive of it.

And like Jessie I'm struggling to believe Cindy is in a better place.When Jessie's other sister tells her that she'll see Carrie again some day in heaven, Jessie expresses her doubts:

I wish there was a guarantee of that. Do you really believe it?

Here's how Anna answers her:

I think everybody lives with doubt, Jessie, but I'm trying hard to believe. Faith brings me comfort.

In the end, faith is all we're left with. Rest in peace, dear friend. I hope we'll meet again.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

An Interview With Carol Matas, (Sydney Taylor Award Blog Tour)

Carol Matas is an internationally acclaimed author of over 40 books for children and young adults. Her novel Pieces of the Past: The Holocaust Diary of Rose Rabinowitz is a 2014 Sydney Taylor Honor Book Selection for Older Readers.

Carol, What led you to set a Holocaust book in Canada?

Scholastic Canada has a series called “Dear Canada," Canadian history books aimed at girls in Grade 4-8, similar to the US series, “Dear America.” Scholastic approached me and asked me to write a Holocaust book for the series since there was not one yet and they felt that would be an important addition. I had already written two books for the series, one dealing with the Holocaust as part of the story – “Turned Away” is set in Winnipeg in 1941 and is about a young Jewish girl and her first cousin in France. Devorah corresponds with her cousin and we see what happens to the French Jews through Devorah’s eyes. In “Behind Enemy Lines," an “I Am Canada” novel, another historical series by Scholastic, this one for boys, I write about a young gunner whose plane is shot down over France and who ends up in Buchenwald. However, the big question for this new book was- ‘How can you set a Holocaust book in Canada when the Holocaust did not happen there?’ That was my first and biggest challenge, and until and unless I could solve it, there would be no book.

Why did you choose a diary format over prose?

This was another part of the project imposed by the constraints of the series – they are all written in dairy format. That proved to be a huge challenge and forced me to become very creative in figuring out a way to make that format work.

What were your greatest challenges in researching and writing this story?

I began my research in a broad sense looking at all kinds of countries, stories and time periods. But I had other constraints to consider: the girl needed to be 12 or 13 to fit the parameters of the series, and therefore that would impact what country to set the book in, and what time in history the book should begin. I considered Hungary, for instance, since the Jews there were rounded up later in the war and my character could conceivably have survived. The truth is that most children did not survive the Holocaust and it was important to research and to discover who did and what helped them to survive. During this research phase I came across the story of the Jewish orphans who were allowed to come to Canada after the war. I saw that some had come from Poland, some from Warsaw. I had always wanted to write about the Jewish Resistance and the Warsaw Uprising because I think it is important for children to realize that Jews did fight back. But this also allowed for me to show the gradual insidious way Hitler “managed” the Final Solution so that right up until the end many Jews still did not and could not believe they would be murdered. I was also able to write about the hidden children. Most who survived were in fact part of this group or they would have ended up in the death camps. So in the end I decided my character would live in Warsaw and that she would be one of the hidden children who did survive. Because she was going to come to Canada as part of the orphan project that would mean that all her family would perish. Readers would know that from the start so the challenge was to make them want to discover how that happened and what Rose’s story was.

Another important aspect of the book for me was the spiritual and religious questions raised by the Holocaust itself and for my character Rose in particular. Since the story was set in Warsaw, the site of a large and vibrant Reform Synagogue, I chose to make Rose’s father a rabbi. This allowed for her to be both knowledgeable and questioning in her spiritual journey through darkness.

What is the most gratifying thing that has happened to you because of this book?

When I was in tenth grade I went to see a play in Winnipeg called “Andora” staged by the then artistic director of The Manitoba Theatre Company, John Hirsch. That play, and one I saw afterwards, “Mother Courage,” changed my life. It made me see that art could teach and could even change the way a person saw the world. I chose a life in the arts, first as an actor, then as a writer, and have tried to be a force for change. John Hirsch was one of the war orphans that came to Canada in 1947/48. I hope I have in some small way paid tribute to him and the others like him who survived and then made new lives for themselves and enriched all of us.

What can young readers expect next from Carol Matas?

I have two new books, one just published and one coming out this spring. The newly published book is a first for me- a picture book and a non-fiction book about death and dying for young readers and their families. Called “When I Die” it is a short meditation on death that I hope will make the subject less scary for parents as they discuss death with their young children.  

On a trip to Los Angeles I visited The Autry Museum of Western Heritage and saw an exhibit called “Jews in the Wild West.” One of the pictures in the exhibit was of Mayor Charles Strauss, Tucson 1882, and his son, dressed up as cowboys. I knew I had to write about it from the second I saw that picture. The new novel, entitled “Tucson Jo” is inspired by the Strauss story but centers on the daughter of the first Jewish Mayor of Tucson in 1882 – her hopes and dreams, her fight for independence as a young woman, and the anti-Semitism Charles Strauss encountered when he ran for mayor. (I say in the book inspired by Charles Strauss because the family name is Fiedler in my book and I have created my own characters, a choice that gave me more freedom with the fictional  part of the story.) Tucson Jo will be launched at the AJL convention in Vegas this summer and I am very excited about presenting it to librarians and readers from across North America.

Both these books are published by a new digital publisher, The editor is tough and demanding, which has made my books all the better, but she is not worried, as some of the big publishers are, that my work might be “too Jewish”. This has given me a freedom in my writing that I often do not have. And a little farther into the future, Scholastic Canada will be publishing my new science fiction book!  I am already researching that one.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Sydney Taylor Book Awards Blog Tour!

On February 18th, I'll have the pleasure of interviewing Carol Matas, author of Dear Canada: Pieces of the Past: The Holocaust Diary of Rose Rabinowitz, Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1948, (published by Scholastic Canada), as part of the Sydney Taylor Book Awards Blog Tour.

I just finished this book, and if I were in the same room as the author, I'd give her a hug for writing such a beautiful and brave story.

You can see the full list of Sydney Taylor Award winners here:

Friday, January 24, 2014

SCBWI Miami Conference - 2014

On our first day in Miami, our RA gave to us:

Five acquiring editors,
Four writers speaking,
Three agents signing,
Two moderated panels,

And a clockwork costume ball!

All kidding aside, some great things happened at the conference. On Saturday, the Rising Kite Awards were announced. One of my picture book biographies won third place in the non-fiction category. Standing beside me in pink is my critique group mate, Joni Klein-Higger. Joni took second prize in the picture book category, and a third critique group mate, Eileen Goldenberg, received an honorable mention. 

I was excited to meet my agent, (Deborah Warren at East West Literary), face-to-face for the first time. While we've worked well via phone and email, it's nice to make a more personal connection.

The halls were buzzing in Miami with good news and potential good news. It was exciting to be a part of it!