Author Archives: Amber J. Keyser

The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts: An Interview with Avi

As a big fan of other novels by Avi like Crispin: The Cross of Lead and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, I was thrilled to get to read an advance copy of The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts and interview Avi. If you’re devoted to middle grade historical fiction, action, and adventure, you’ll definitely want to read this one!

About the Book

In The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts, a young boy wakes to find his father missing and his house flooded by a recent storm. It’s 1724 in the seaside town of Melcombe Regis, England, and Oliver is alone with no money and no food. His father has left behind a barely legible, waterlogged note stating that he’s gone to London, where Oliver’s sister, Charity, is in some kind of trouble.

Exploring damage to the town in the storm’s aftermath, Oliver discovers a shipwreck on the beach. Removing anything from a wrecked ship is a hanging offense, but Oliver finds money that could save him from being sent to the ghastly children’s poorhouse, and he can’t resist temptation. When his crime is discovered, Oliver flees, following his father’s trail. His journey is full of cruel orphan masters, corrupt magistrates, and conniving thieves—but when he finally reaches his destination, Oliver finds that London might be the most dangerous place of all.

The Interview

All the reviews, which have been glowing and star-studded, compare this story to those of Charles Dickens. Are the wonderful similarities they note intentional? Is your book an homage to Dickens?

Thanks for your kind words about The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts. I am a reader and admirer of Dickens, but I think this book is cast more in the light of those great 18th century literary lights, Fielding, Defoe, Sterne, Smollett, et al.

My real homage to Dickens is to be found in Traitors’ Gate. It is full of references to Dickens and his life. Indeed, my hero there is named John Huffam, which is taken from Dickens’ extended name.

Oliver is a fantastic character. He’s pugnacious and funny and brave. There’s so much to love about him. Where are the points of intersection between Oliver and a contemporary twelve year old? Where do they diverge?

Young people today, as in the 18th century, lived and still live in a world created, and usually controlled by adults. Not necessarily a bad thing, and often a necessary thing.  That said, the young will often chaff under the restrictions, both physical and psychological of the adult world. Keenly aware of what is fair and unfair, they are the ones who should sit on the Supreme Court.

As I was reading your book, I was struck by the very tricksy way you use language. Here’s a bit from the first page:

On November 12, 1724, I, Oliver Cromwell Pitts, lay asleep in my small room at the top of our three-story house, when, at about six in the morning, I was shocked into full wakefulness by horrible sounds: roaring, wailing, and screeching. Confounded by such forceful clamors, I was too frightened to shift from my bed.

You manage to start with action but also language that feels appropriate for the 1700s. Can you tell us how you chose language that evoked the time period but was still accessible to young readers?

I have a great love of language and words. I enjoy browsing through dictionaries. (Short chapters!) English, the only language (alas) I know, has a huge and wonderfully rich vocabulary that has evolved over centuries. All of it is available to the writer.  (And language invention is welcome.) I love using old, but understandable words in a historical context. Indeed, when writing historical fiction one of the key challenges is giving the language itself a sense of the past. I think of the Unabridged Oxford Dictionary as my writing partner.

One of my favorite things about this book is how funny it is. As I read, I started marking particularly funny lines, and by the end, I had a ton of tagged pages. Here’s one of my favorites:

I am of the belief that when two adults exchange a meaningful look in the presence of a child, there is little doubt that the adults will have nothing pleasing to say to that child.

Oliver is both astute and funny in this passage. And what about the horrible Mr. Probert (who gets what he deserves if you ask me!), who says:

An authority has written: The sooner poor children are put to laborious, painful work, the more patiently they will submit to it forever.

And of course, in this description of Oliver’s father:

A stiff-rumped clink-clank.

I could go on quoting you to yourself for a long time, but instead, can you tell us about the role of humor in this book? Dickens wasn’t very funny. How did you work in the laughs and still end up with a book that feels Dickensian?

Funny is serious work. In this book, what is humorous comes out of Oliver’s character, who is often alone, and keenly observant. But it also derives from the historical style of the 18th century, which can be comical and satirical. Writers of that day looked upon the world with amusement, affection, and skepticism, as did our own Benjamin Franklin.

The poorhouse where Oliver ends up is pretty awful, and Oliver’s escape from it is pretty marvelous. Were there really places like that for children in the 1700s?

The poorhouse is based on research I did, even to the daily food allowance.  I also came upon an image of a punishment basket. The moment I saw it I knew I wanted to use it.

I know there is a ton of research behind this book. Were there any delicious factual tidbits that would have loved to work in to the pages but didn’t have room for?

As for what I left out, there is a whole library about British prisons, Newgate in particular, that could have been included. I somewhat regret that I did not use more of that.

We at the Mixed-Up Files are obsessed with middle grade literature. Why are you drawn to writing for this age group? What do you think characterizes middle grade and makes it distinct from young adult or adult books with young protagonists like those by Dickens?

I love the way middle-graders read. They are passionate readers, who can engage fully with the experiences depicted in a story. They embrace character and plot with enthusiasm. They care about what happens. They can be articulate about what they read, too, but not in a pedantic fashion. “It’s good.” “It’s bad.” “I loved it.” I hated it.”

“It was boring.” “It was exciting.” All cool.

They approach reading with both hands and an open heart.

I once had a letter from a middle-schooler which began, “I read your book, and it was boring at first. But by page two it got really good.”

I loved that.

They also like puns.

For the reader who adores The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts, which one of your other books should he or she read while waiting for the next installment?

Those who enjoy The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts might like the above mentioned, Traitors’ Gate, and also, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Crispin, Beyond the Western Sea, Catch You Later, Traitor—all adventures stories with historical settings, all character driven.

I know more books are in the works. Any hints about what dreadful fate will next befall our noble hero?

As for Oliver’s fate, he has been sentenced to be shipped to the American colonies and sold into slavery for a period of seven years. I am writing the book now, and he is not enjoying the experience.  Freedom calls, but an iron collar round his neck is not easy to get off. And where is his sister?  I’m not one of those writers who always knows the endings.  So, I’m working as fast as I can because I too want to know what happens.

About the Author

Avi is the author of many books for young readers including Catch You Later, Traitor, the Newbery Medal novel Crispin: The Cross of Lead, and the Newbery Honor books The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and Nothing But the Truth. He lives in Colorado. For more information, visit www.avi-writer.com.

Challenge Day: The Boy in the Corner

The boy hunched in an empty corner of the gym while the rest of the seventh and eight grade sprint-walked across the floor to join two Challenge Day leaders in an impromptu dance party. Everyone in the room vibrated with nervous energy and twittering laughter. Everyone except the boy in the corner.

It was December and I was an adult volunteer for a six-hour, immersive Challenge Day experience at a local middle school. My job was simple: participate like everyone else and pay attention to any kids that might be slipping through the cracks.

Imagine a school where everyone feels safe, loved and celebrated. Imagine enemies finding common ground and making peace; friends healing past hurts and making amends; people igniting their passion for service and leadership; adults and youth working together to create a school where everyone is included and thrives. This is Challenge Day.

The first activities were mostly silly, racing to find a new seat if, as the Challenge Day leaders specified, “you were wearing clothes” or “woke up this morning.” All this racing around, interspersed with goofy dance moves, eased the tension in the room and shook up the normal social dynamics. Kids ended up seated next to people they didn’t know well. Everyone except the boy in the corner.

The program goes beyond traditional anti-bullying efforts, building empathy and inspiring a school-wide movement of compassion and positive change. We address some common issues seen in most schools including cliques, gossip, rumors, negative judgments, teasing, harassment, isolation, stereotypes, intolerance, racism, sexism, bullying, violence, suicide, homophobia, hopelessness, apathy, and hidden pressures to create an image, achieve or live up to the expectations of others.

Once they’d loosened up the crowd, the leaders shifted into more serious activities that unpacked different issues often found in middle school. All of this built to an intimate and intense small group activity just before lunch. In small circles of four, we took turns finishing these sentences:

If you knew me…
If you really knew me…

This far into the day, we were ready to open up. Each and every one of us in my group (which didn’t include the boy I was keeping an eye on) shared intense and personal things. We cried. We hugged. We supported. We were human in the very best way.

And we were hungry.

At lunch, we were asked to pair up with someone new. By the time I had my lunch bag, the boy in the corner was back in the corner. I don’t how he fared in his small group, but I decided that he was having lunch with me.

“Can I join you for lunch?”

He nodded.

“How’s it been going?”

He shrugged.

“That was pretty intense, huh?”

Another shrug. He wouldn’t look at me. I showed him a picture of my dog and gave him a piece of jerky. Eventually he told me about his cats and his siblings. We were human in the very best way.

Returning to the group, the leaders launched into an exercise called, “Cross the Line.” You’ve probably seen a version of it on Facebook. We began on one half of the room. The leaders asked us to cross over if we identified with a series of statements. Have you ever faced food insecurity? Are you or someone you love struggling with mental illness? Have you ever faced discrimination for your skin color? Your religion? Your sexuality?

After each statement, we were asked to send love to those who had crossed over, and if we had crossed over, we were asked to notice how many were standing with us. Tears streamed down our faces. We held each other. No one was ever alone. Not even the boy in the corner, and my lunch companion crossed many times: foster care, divorce, incarceration, suicide, bullying… These were his challenges. These and more.

At the very end of the day, we were invited to stand up and speak directly to others in the room. To apologize, to appreciate, to reach out, to connect, to commit to taking the lessons of Challenge Day into the rest of our lives.

I stood and took the mic and thanked my lunch friend for telling me about his cats.

***

For me, Challenge Day encompassed everything I love about the humans we call middle grade readers. They can be full of bluff and bluster, goof and gallantry. And sure, some of them, like my lunch friend, wear thick armor. But they can and do crack open in the most beautiful ways. They hold light even in the darkest circumstances, and they can be reached by the right teacher, the right librarian, the right book.

I hope you will consider learning more about Challenge Day. You could bring a program to your school. You could volunteer like I did. The experience affected me deeply, and it reminded me of exactly why I write the books I do. I write them for the boy in the corner.