Your first novel, Hattie Big Sky, was a huge critical success and won a Newbery Honor. Can you describe what it was like to start a new book, and how you got the idea?
It was overwhelming to begin a new book after winning the Newbery Honor (with my first novel, no less!) and, in fact, I suffered mightily from what my friend Cindy Lord calls "The Dreaded Second Novel Syndrome." Everything I wrote after Hattie Big Sky seemed wretched, nothing near the quality of that book. One day, I was walking with my husband, pouring out my tale of writing woes, and he reminded me that I'd said the same things about early versions of Hattie's story. When we got home, I looked at my very first draft of Hattie Big Sky...and it was awful! I was thrilled. I figured that if I could whip a manuscript that bad into shape, I could do it again. In addition, I had an idea that wouldn't leave me alone, inspired by a photo I'd run across while researching Hattie Big Sky. Taken in 1928, it shows a Montana farm girl standing next to an exquisite Japanese doll, nearly the girl's size. It was so intriguing to me--how on earth did such a doll end up in rural Montana? Answering that question took me over five years. An early version of The Friendship Doll tried to incorporate a contemporary child into historical events. And it really didn't work at all. My wonderful editor, Michelle Poploff, told me two things that helped me find my way into the heart of the story. She said the story really took on energy when I was writing about the past. She also pointed out that we are living in hard times now, and that a story set during the Great Depression would definitely resonate with today's kids. I pitched that early version (not without some pain and grumbling) and started completely over. It was the absolute right thing to do. The new book takes place during the Depression. Do you feel there are parallels between the Great Depression of the ’30s and what we are experiencing in our country now?
I do, and I feel proud to have been able to write a story that shows that love and friendship can soften hard times. In addition to Hattie Big Sky and The Friendship Doll, you’ve written a few picture-books as well as a book in the Dear America series. What draws you to historical fiction?
If you had told me 15 years ago that I'd be writing historical fiction, I would've laughed out loud. I was never a student of history until I learned that my great-grandmother may have homesteaded by herself in eastern Montana as a young woman. In attempting to find out if that really did happen, I discovered that history is not just dates and battles and footnotes, it's people--people like you and me. And I find people completely fascinating! I love the challenge of learning enough about a different time and place to be able to take a reader there. Growing up, I always thought it would be fun to be a detective, and with historical fiction, I feel like I can be one--without the danger. You’ve traveled all over the world to discuss your books, but you’ve also traveled with relief groups to troubled parts of the world. How do you think these experiences inform your creative process?
People often ask me what I want readers to take away from my books, and I always say, “I want readers to take away what they want to take away.” That being said, I think both my writing life and my personal life are a lot about figuring out what it means to be a decent human being in this world. My experience helping out with Hurricane Katrina clean-up certainly informed and enriched my contributions to Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship and Survival, co-written with my dear friend Mary Nethery. My trip to the Middle East, especially after speaking with kids in Beirut, certainly fed my desire to explore why we humans often set up barriers of prejudice and suspicion and added to the impetus to write about the War Relocation Camps in World War II, as I did in The Fences Between Us. I want to write books that offer hope. That's one reason the story of the Friendship Dolls--the ultimate example of hope--wouldn't leave me alone. In 1927, Dr. Sidney Gulick wanted to do something to improve the rocky relationships between the U.S. and Japan. A former missionary, he knew how important dolls were to the Japanese culture, so he organized a drive to send blue-eyed baby dolls overseas. Thousands of kids--in Sunday schools, Camp Fire Girl groups, schools in every state--participated and, in the end, over 12,000 dolls were sent to Japan. In gratitude, the school children there contributed the equivalent of one penny each and 58 amazing Friendship Dolls were created and sent here. Sadly, these positive efforts were undone by WWII. But Dr. Gulick never gave up hope, holding firmly to these words: "We who desire peace must write it in the hearts of children." When Hattie Big Sky received a Newbery Honor, the announcement was made at the ALA conference that just happened to be in your home town of Seattle that year. How did it feel to achieve this honor among so many local supporters?
Aside from my wedding day and the day each of our children was born, that was the best day of my life. After the very early morning call (and the admonishment not to reveal the news until 9 a.m.!), I was so overwhelmed, I burst into tears. Hattie Big Sky is a very personal book--I call it my love letter to my maternal grandmother, who was a huge influence in my life. She died before the book came out so the big news was bittersweet. A few minutes after I hung up the phone, I began to wonder if it was a practical joke. But we decided to drive into the city anyway for the press conference. I found a seat in the very back--still wondering if it was true. My husband (to whom the book is dedicated) marched right up front. As soon as the cover appeared on the big screen, the room erupted into the loudest cheers I've ever heard. I began to cry all over again. To share that news with so many local booksellers, librarians, and fellow book creators was sweet indeed. Though there have been rough patches, I feel completely blessed to be able to pursue my passion of writing books for children and young adults.