Making history come alive for young readers
Laurie Halse Anderson sometimes thinks her career as a children's author is too good to be true. She says she expects someone to tap her on the shoulder and say, "Honey, we gave you the wrong life - you're supposed to be an accountant, or shovel manure." It's unlikely she'll need to brush up on her manure-shoveling skills, though. In the last decade, Anderson has written a range of well-received books for young readers, from picture books to young adult novels. She is perhaps best known for Speak, a 1999 National Book Award finalist and Printz Honor book that was adapted into a television movie.
A former journalist, Anderson says she was invited to help with the screenplay, but decided to leave it in the hands of the filmmaking team. She did take a small role, though: "I was the lunch lady. All I had to do was drop mashed potatoes on a plate, and it took seven takes. It made me realize I shouldn't give up my day job." The latest result of Anderson's "day job" is Chains, a historical novel for middle-grade readers, set in 1776 New York City. "The idea grew out of a really compelling need to understand what slavery was like in the Colonial period," Anderson explains during an interview from her home in upstate New York. "I'm a Northerner and always thought it was a Southern thing, a Civil War thing. I had a lot of learning to do."
Isabel, the 13 - year - old protagonist, was the first of the book's characters to make her appearance in Anderson's imagination. "I went to a marvelous exhibit called 'Slavery in New York,' and as I walked in, there were shapes of a man and woman made out of thin wire. Your eyes could almost go over them and not see them," she says. "I thought a lot about what it might've been like to be a person who was enslaved during a time when everyone around you was talking about freedom and liberty - only they weren't talking about you."
In Chains, Anderson describes the overlooked people who were sold into slavery and brought to New England by masters who, even as they worked to win freedom for a new nation, did not grant it to those forced to serve them. Chains is a suspenseful, sad and engrossing tale made all the more vivid by Anderson's devoted attention to detail, from the smells of the city to the characters' clothing.
The author takes a two-pronged approach to research: she begins by reading secondary sources written by historians. As the information takes up residence in her brain, the characters begin to make themselves known. "The magical part happens when a character starts to whisper ... when I'm running or in the garden, and I hear the voice. Then, my task is to come up with characters and find a way to braid those characters with the historical events he or she is involved in," she says. Anderson also looks at primary sources, such as newspaper accounts, letters and countless runaway slave advertisements. Then, she says, "I go through and make sure I have enough sensory details for my readers, who know a lot about video games but have no context for the 18th century."
In addition to providing education, entertainment and historical context, Anderson also believes her books can offer young readers something more: "I have a theory about historical fiction, particularly for middle-grade readers," she says. "Fifth grade or so is a time before you get into the really difficult challenges of late adolescence. Books allow kids to test themselves out against a scary world, but in a safe way - and historical fiction allows kids to test their morality, too." There are plenty of moral questions in Chains, but Anderson is careful to keep things from being too cut-and-dried: sometimes even cruel people can inspire sympathy, and a decision that seems beneficial may have negative consequences for others. Anderson says these paradoxes - and their role in history - are well worth exploring. "My editor and I have had such incredible, good conversations about America and race. How can we love our country and our history when there are things that make us uncomfortable?" She adds, "We came to the conclusion that the best way to love our country is to look at things that are uncomfortable, look them full in the eye and say, 'Wow, this is making me squirm. I need to learn more about it, take those lessons and move forward.'