When I begin reading Anne Ylvisaker’s DEAR PAPA (Candlewick Press) or THE LUCK OF THE BUTTONS (Candlewick Press), both middle grade books, I’d feel like I’m picking up an old black-and-white photograph. As the stories draw me in, the people and objects in the photograph begin to move as the depicted historical period comes to life in full color. Anne’s books easily immerse me into a different time period and the lives of her young protagonists living in them. Anne was very gracious about letting me interview her for my blog.
A native of Minneapolis, Minnnesota, Anne graduated with a degree in Elementary Education from Concordia College in Moorhead and later received an M.A. in Education from St. Scholastica in Duluth. Anne recalls having a tough time deciding on a major back in college. For Anne, one of the perks of teaching elementary school was that she could work with all subjects, so the job was a great fit for her. Today Anne lives in Monterey, California.
How did you decide you wanted to be a kidlit author?
Kidlit found me more than the other way around, I think. I just wanted to write: letters, grocery lists, journals, stories. After many years in the classroom reading out loud to my students every day, I had children’s literature coursing through my veins. Through a friend, I got a spot in a class taught by the late Judy Delton, a marvelous youth fiction writer. I wrote DEAR PAPA, my first published novel, while in her class.
I wasn’t sure if DEAR PAPA was a children’s novel or not, and Judy advised me to not worry about market while I wrote, to just tell the story and think about how to market it later. Great advice for all writers, I think. Tell the story you have inside, then think about where it could go. I think of DEAR PAPA as a book for all ages, really, and have done programs with readers from elementary school age through senior citizens. When a child reads it and writes to me about it, I feel especially happy because kids are very discerning readers.
How did you come up with the concept of having the entire novel of DEAR PAPA told through letters?
I was visiting my Aunt Betty in Florida and asked her to tell me about her dad, my grandfather, who had died when she was young, and what it was like for her when he died. “I wrote him a letter before he died,” she said. “Let’s find it.” We looked through box after box of photographs and family memorabilia and didn’t find the letter. But along the way, I learned a lot about my family.
When I got home I wondered what a girl like my aunt might have said in a letter to her father, only I misremembered the details and thought she’d said she’d written to him after his death. I’d lost my own father in my 30s, and what I missed the most was not being able to tell him the small details of daily life, so it made sense to me that this girl would have written her father a letter after he died. I made up the first letter, then just kept going one letter at a time, making up the story as I went along.
In THE LUCK OF THE BUTTONS, which was just released in April, some of Tugs' family members berate her and cut her down for her successes. Yet I couldn't bring myself to dislike this family. What is your strategy for crafting an occasionally bothersome but endearing family?
Families are a messy business. Every one has its blind spot and the Buttons have a whopper. They take pride in their bumbling ways. It’s their identity. I love the Buttons. They were a family in need of someone to shake up their self-perception and thank goodness Tugs came along to do it. I don’t think their intentions towards Tugs were bad so much as that they were set in their ways and Tugs shook the family tree.
I’m afraid I can’t claim any particular strategy beyond being empathetic towards the characters and having been part of a family. (Disclaimer: the Buttons are not based on my family!) I believe that most families have good intentions when we raise our children, but sometimes our methods are ill advised. So please, children, forgive us!
Why does writing historical fiction appeal to you?
Just as I didn’t set out to write kidlit, I didn’t set out to write historical fiction, but simply to tell the stories of characters who captured my imagination. I get inspiration by looking at old family photographs so it does make sense that the stories land where they do.
DEAR PAPA and LITTLE KLEIN fell very naturally into the 1940s, but with THE LUCK OF THE BUTTONS, I tried several different settings from modern to 1976 to the 1930s. I wanted Tugs Button to win a camera. I poked around on the Kodak website and discovered that in 1930, Kodak gave a Brownie camera to every child that turned twelve that year. So I tried setting THE LUCK OF THE BUTTONS in 1929 as it would have been more of a novelty for Tugs to win her camera before every one of her peers had one. That’s the year that really felt right for the story, so it stuck.
My next book is also set in 1929 but after that, who knows?
What are the elements of compelling historical fiction?
I think the elements that make historical fiction compelling are the same ones that make any book compelling: a distinct voice, a protagonist you want to root for, and an intriguing storyline. Historical fiction has the added fun of interesting and quirky details of daily life in earlier eras. The themes of growing up are universal and I think kids connect with characters from any era when they recognize the emotions they have in common.
How do you research a particular time period?
Since my stories are not based on particular historical events, my research is an exercise in learning about the nuances of every day life in a particular year. I read newspapers, listen to music, and interview people who remember the era. I look at photographs, and scour ads in magazines and newspapers.
I have a great reference book that tells year-by-year what was happening in the world, so I learn who was born and died in certain years, what events were influencing the world and culture in literature, art, music, movies, and politics. Some of those details make it into the story, most do not, but all help me know the characters better and settle my mind into a particular year.
What are your favorite historical fiction books in kidlit?
For most of the books that spring to mind I have to stop and think whether they are “historical fiction” or not. For instance, HARRIET THE SPY (a fave) was modern at the time it was written so I suppose it’s not historical fiction. So here, in no particular order, are a few of my favorite kidlit books in general: A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO, A YEAR DOWN YONDER and FAIR WEATHER by Richard Peck, STUART LITTLE by E.B. White, SEEDFOLKS by Paul Fleischman, WHAT I CALL LIFE by Jill Wolfson, MY ONE HUNDRED ADVENTURES by Polly Horvath, THE WHIPPING BOY by Sid Fleischman, FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER by E.L. Konigsburg, A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeleine L'Engle, and OUT OF THE DUST by Karen Hesse. I could keep going on and on through my bookshelf. So many favorites! Just starting to list these few makes me want to dive in and read all the way through my shelves again. Then there are new books coming out all the time. I guess I’ll stop here and get back to reading! Oh, and writing.
Thanks for the opportunity to chat about writing, Cynthia, and best wishes on your journey!
Thanks Anne, for your support and for chatting with me!
Feel free to check out Anne’s web site at www.anneylvisaker.com or her Facebook author page at www.facebook.com/AnneYAuthor.